During the late Middle Ages, the stiletto was a favorite weapon of mercenaries, knights and ne’er do wells. It was designed primarily for thrusting due to its needle point and narrow blade. Stick it in, pull it out, back away and your done.
Four or five hundred years later, some masochistic shoe designer decided to incorporate that small, narrow and long concept into a high heel design that became a symbol for sexy and powerful women. Keep in mind that to be considered a real stiletto heel, it has to have a solid steel or alloy stem – how else to support any kind of weight on such a narrow platform?
Today the word stiletto is probably far more apt to call up heels rather than knives. Which is no doubt why the original founder of the women’s social riding group (they insist it’s not a club) Stilettos on Steel decided to work the name into the title.
After all, there are some apt analogies here. This is a group founded on the idea that any woman - regardless of age or aptitude -- could ride and probably deserved to at least know what it felt like. All it might take is the unwavering, steel-like support of other women who had already proven to themselves that they could do it. Think empowerment on two wheels.
Look no further than the group’s mission statement -- provide an all-female motorcycle riding group empowering women to ride safely, strongly and street smart – to see the analogy.
Anne Zube - President
All of which are what attracted Anne Zube, the current president of Stilettos on Steel, to the organization in the first place. Although not the founder, she’s put her heart and soul into the group in the roughly five years since she took over what was a small, slightly organized amalgamation of women in Milwaukee who may have been more interested in the idea of motorcycles rather than riding them.
“I’d finally gotten my license and found this group on Facebook. I’d met the lady who started it as a social riding group just for women. There were only about 10 members who actually rode a motorcycle and there was just no structure or process to keep them or to attract new members.”
Anne started making suggestions as to how to change that. But she said the founder had no money and no real time to do much with her ideas. So she offered to give the whole thing over to Anne, who promptly began applying her business experience to making it grow.
“Our timing was right. It was the 100th anniversary of Harley, the number of women riders was starting to grow. And we were offering them something they couldn’t find elsewhere– a social riding group with none of the strings attached that more formal clubs required.”
Within a year, the group grew to 45 paid members and actual sponsors. Anne found some women outside of Milwaukee who were interested in joining and some of them became regional coordinators. Today there are several hundred members belonging to chapters in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana, Florida, Connecticut, Colorado, and Massachusetts.
The first four make sense, they share a few borders between them. But it’s a long way from Milwaukee to Denver, and even longer to Florida. What gives?
Well, it turns out that Anne was doing a pretty good job getting the word out about Stilettos on Steel. So women riders in other states started reaching out to her to make their case for starting a chapter.
Here’s where some groups might let anyone interested move forward – few questions asked. But Anne is all about making Stilettos legit, so becoming a chapter leader doesn’t come without some requirements.
“I walk them through what we’re all about and what we expect of them. They have to be able to use a computer and know how to post on Facebook, and read and reply to every question. We also have an officer training page to make sure they have something to reference when they need to.”
Clearly interest is one thing, but being serious is something else entirely.
Anne seems to have come naturally to her position in what she says is the largest women’s social riding group in the Midwest. She grew up on a farm, rode horses and bikes and loved having that feeling of wind in her hair. She said she was always a motorcycle enthusiast, but it wasn’t until she turned 40 that she became a motorcycle rider.
“After spending my life watching everyone else ride, when I turned 40 I decided to learn how to ride myself. I think my husband was a little nervous at the time since he doesn’t ride, but I did so well in the motorcycle class that my instructor used me as the one to lead the others in the drills!”
Anne didn’t have a bike at the time, but her husband later surprised her with a day-long use of a rented Harley 883. He was taking the kids on a short trip while she spent the time on the bike by herself.
“I was terrified when I first got on it, but once I got familiar with it, I really loved it. When I had to return it, I actually cried. I thought, ‘what am I going to do now?!”
‘Now’ ended up being the following spring when Anne rented another Harley, this time the much larger Heritage Softail. She had it for two days and fell in love with it. She then found one for sale that she really liked, but it was $5,000 over the budget she was working with.
“I told my husband that he was my soul mate, but this was my soul bike. I ended up buying it in 2010 and can’t imagine riding anything else. I’m a mother, a wife, and I have a job. Now I have a network of 50 or more women I can contact to ride, and even more when we put on events.”
Lori Mosher – Michigan Officer
Of course, Anne doesn’t run Stilettos by herself, and even though it’s based in Milwaukee, members aren’t required to own a Harley or any particular bike for that matter.
Take Lori Mosher for example. Like Anne, she started riding late in life – three years ago to be exact. She said she was always interested in motorcycles, had periodically ridden on the back of them, but never really thought she was capable of riding one on her own.
“When I turned 47, I got on the back of a friend’s bike, and when I got off, I decided that was it. I eventually took the riding course with my daughter. She passed, I failed. But I went out again, passed it, and later bought a used Honda Rebel. Something to ease myself into.”
As Lori got more comfortable with riding, it didn’t take long for her to realize she needed more power. So bye, bye Rebel, hello Yamaha 650!
Today, Lori is head of the Michigan area for Stilettos on Steel. There are now eight chapters within the state and over 100 members. Most of that growth occurred since Lori took on her role two years ago.
What’s interesting is that like Anne, Lori’s husband doesn’t ride either. But he supports his wife’s newfound passion, clearly not the stereotypical arrangement where it’s the other way around.
Lori said she isn’t sure why it took her so long to finally ride on her own, but she said she now can’t think of what it would be like to not ride and not be involved with Stilettos on Steel.
“I’m not really sure what kept me from riding – maybe a lack of confidence. I needed to believe that I could do this myself. Once I did, that feeling of empowerment was overwhelming. I remember a 350-mile day trip I did by myself. That isn’t long compared to what some people may ride, but for me it was a big deal. What I felt afterward stayed with me a long time.”
And in case you’re wondering what Lori does when she’s not riding or encouraging more women to believe they can, she and her husband run a construction business.
Burklin Nielsen - National Operations Director
When a motorcycle pulls up next to someone in a car at a traffic light, several thoughts might run through the mind of the person in the cage. For Burklin Nielsen as a young girl, it was hope – hope that some day she could be that person on the bike.
“I always wanted to ride, so I finally took the course through the Motorcycle Safety Foundation in 2010. About the same time, I started to notice ladies posting pictures on Facebook of a motorcycle photo shoot. They were all rad chicks with rad bikes!”
Those ladies ended up being the Stilettos on Steel in Wisconsin. At the time, there were no membership dues and members weren’t required to own a motorcycle. So Burklin joined and started to become more and more involved.
At the same time, she went from riding a Honda Shadow ACE 750 to a Yamaha Midnight Star 1600. There was a Harley Springer in there at some point, too.
“The mission of Stilettos is what inspires me. I believe all women should know the feeling of empowerment and freedom that comes with riding. Anne and I have put every free moment into growing Stilettos. We love every member, every story, every accomplishment, every milestone. Our lives wouldn't be complete without Stilettos.”
As for Burklin’s background…she’s a divorced mother raising a daughter, and works full-time as a consultant project manager and analyst for a large food manufacturer. She’s also a Cross Fitter and competitive Bikini athlete.
Clearly the members of Stilettos on Steel do not fit a particular stereotype. If there was one to be filled by those in need of such a thing, it’s that these are women who were more than likely strong in their own right, but became even more empowered once they threw a leg over the saddle of a bike, twisted the throttle, and rode down the road experiencing the sense of freedom that knows no gender, ethnicity or affiliation.
Anne’s vision is to eventually make Stilettos on Steel a household name, and continue to be associated with something positive. She’s organized the group in a way that makes it seem bigger than it actually is, but that means everything’s in place to continue to handle the growth that going national entails.
With women like Lori and Burklin to help lead the way, that could happen. But probably more important to them, and all of the members is the sense that they are empowering women to do something they might have thought they couldn’t, and they’re learning to do it right. Like the stiletto, that’s an idea that’s both sharp and timeless.