For years, Michelle Eakin sat quietly in the back seat watching the world go by as her husband had most of the fun in the front seat of their Harley.
But since Eakin began buying her own motorcycles in 1998, she doesn't take a back seat to any man.
"When you're up front, you're the one in control," said Eakin, who owns National Car Rental at the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport. "I don't like somebody else being in control of my safety. But the real reason is it's just a lot more fun driving than riding."
Eakin isn't the only woman who thinks so. Nationwide, women accounted for nearly 10 percent of all motorcycle owners in 2003, up from 8.2 percent five years earlier, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.
While scooters are the most popular category, with nearly 25 percent owned by women, heavyweight bikes like Harleys are also drawing more female riders. Sonny Minor, owner of Minor's Harley-Davidson in Scott City, said that 20 percent of his sales are to women these days.
"More and more women are riding," Minor said. "They used to ride on the back, but not so much these days. They love to ride, they love the freedom of it, the feeling. The presence of freedom, empowerment and exhilaration are universally appealing."
Minor also credits women's desire to experience the thrill of handling a motorcycle firsthand and a growth of disposable income for fueling the increase in female ridership.
Other motorcycle dealerships confirm the notion.
John Simmons of Grassroots BMW in Cape Girardeau said he is seeing twice as many female customers than he has in years past.
"They just want to be on their own machine," he said. "They're more comfortable driving and they like it better than sitting in the back."
When asked if women should buy smaller bikes than men, Simmons chuckles, suggesting that you'd better not ask a woman that question.
"It's really just like a man, whatever your physique supports," he said. "I know women that buy big Harleys and don't have any trouble with them."
At Ford's Custom Bike, Joe Ford said many more women buy motorcycles than when he first opened in 1975.
"But there are still some who are happy riding in the back," he said. "But I sure see more of them these days who say, 'I want to ride my own bike and he can have his.'"
In response to the trend, Harley-Davidson has introduced a new section on its Web site -- www.harley-davidson.com -- called "Women and motorcycling."
Women might be surprised to learn that a mother and daughter crossed the country twice on a Harley with a sidecar in 1915, Minor said, or that a women's riding club called the Motor Maids was founded in the 1930s by a Wellesley College grad.
There's even a local group of female riders called Ladies of Harley, who get together to go riding. Pat Jenkins, who has owned her own motorcycle since 2000, is a member of that group.
"I first started riding when I was 55," she said. " I saw some other ladies doing it and I thought it looked like fun. It really is about control. When you're riding, you're in control."
Jill Haupt of Cape Girardeau is also a member of the group. She bought her first motorcycle last June.
"Why should I have to depend on somebody else if I want to go for a ride on a sunny day?" she said. "To me, it's a release. It's something I can do to forget about work and stress. It's hard to explain to somebody who's never riden a motorcycle. It's just peaceful."
Barb Minor, who owns Minor's with her husband, said that the stereotype of women bikers has changed in recent years, too. There are more professional women with discretionary income to spend who are riding motorcycles.
"There's no flashing, no loud profanity," she said. "It's become a family-oriented thing. We're not all Hells Angels, and some of us never were."
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