Cris Baldwin was 7 when she commandeered her brother's minibike on their Wisconsin dairy farm and first felt the wind in her face. More than 250,000 miles and 42 years later, it's still two wheels and a gas tank for the school administrator.
Baldwin is an assistant dean at Washington University in St. Louis, but that's just one part of her. She's also past president and a chapter founder of the 30-year-old Women on Wheels, one of the country's oldest and largest motorcycle clubs for women at about 2,000 members.
"It really is freeing from your day to day obligations, enjoying the moment, not thinking about bills or sending kids to college," Baldwin said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's my two-wheel therapy."
The number of women motorcycle operators in the U.S. has increased slowly to about 7.2 million of about 27 million overall in 2009, according to the latest survey by the Motorcycle Industry Council. About 1 in 10 owners are women, said Cam Arnold, a vice president for the trade group.
"I hate riding on the back of a bike," Arnold said. "It's a lot more fun being in control."
The American Motorcyclist Association has about 225,000 members. The number of women is under 10 percent, but the number of new women members has increased, driven in part by a higher profile for women on two wheels, more training opportunities and better equipment, said AMA board member Maggie McNally.
Dozens of female-only motorcycle clubs have joined more established groups like Women on Wheels. The makers of bikes and gear are reaching out to women like never before through special events and marketing campaigns that include Harley-Davidson's "No Doubts. No Cages." program.
Women no longer have to endure jackets, gloves and helmets designed for men. And it's easier to find or modify bikes for shorter bodies, said McNally, the AMA's vice chairwoman and the highest-ranking female in the group's 75-year history.
"I'm only 5-1," she said. "I wore boy's work boots for years and found the perfect gloves only three years ago. Things have changed a lot. Manufacturers today have realized that women are a huge part of the market."
McNally started riding in 1981 after hanging out with friends, thinking up dream cars, in a Troy, N.Y., parking lot, the same parking lot where she now teaches newbies of both sexes how to ride safely.
"I said that I wanted to get a motorcycle and one of the guys said, 'You can't, girls don't ride motorcycles,'" she said. "I thought, 'He shouldn't be telling a temperamental redhead what she can and cannot do.' I had my permit within a week."
Whether they prefer dirt or the open road, a scooter or a Harley, thousands of women will gather July 26-29 in Carson City, Nev., for the AMA's sixth International Women & Motorcycling Conference. Many will be mothers, an anxious status for some when it comes to riding.
"People were shocked that I didn't sell my bike when I became a mom," McNally said, "but I knew that once the bike was gone, I might never get back into the sport."
When her second child came along, she and her husband bought a sidecar. "Riding and motorcycle camping became a family activity that probably wouldn't have been possible otherwise," she said.
Baldwin is a mom who rode. So did her 23-year-old daughter, until she gave up two wheels for four when she got her driver's license years ago.