May 23, 2024

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Barbara Joans, Anthropologist Who Studied Biker Culture, Dies at 89

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Barbara Joans, an iconoclastic anthropologist and feminist who, in her early 60s, became something of a Margaret Mead in black leather, steering her Harley-Davidson deep into a biker culture and producing the 2001 book, “Bike Lust: Harleys, Women, and American Society,” died on March 6 in Santa Cruz, Calif. She was 89.

The cause of her death, in an assisted living facility, was cardiopulmonary failure, her son Howard Schwartz said.

Ms. Joans, Brooklyn-born, plucky and outspoken, began her career as an instructor at the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village, with a focus on women’s issues, producing papers on topics like the anthropological aspects of menopause.

Starting in the 1960s, she was also a feminist crusader, helping women arrange illegal abortions in the days before Roe v. Wade. In 1970, she participated in a daylong occupation of The Ladies’ Home Journal’s editorial offices in New York to demand the opportunity to put out a “liberated” version of the magazine.

“She was a bit of a wild woman, a genuine nonconformist,” Phyllis Chesler, author of “Women and Madness” (1972) and a longtime friend of Ms. Joans’s, said in a phone interview. “Yes, she was an academic and a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn. But she was a little bit of a street hombre.”

In her 50s, that designation became more literal when Ms. Joans, then a professor of anthropology at Merritt College in Oakland, Calif., bought her first motorcycle, and unwittingly opened a new field of study for herself.

“To the Harley rider, there are two kinds of bikes,” she wrote in the introduction to “Bike Lust.” “There are Harleys, and there are all other kinds of motorcycles.”

Setting out on her brawny Harley-Davidson Low Rider, which she nicknamed the Beast, Ms. Joans researched the subculture, with its many splinters and subgroups, on weekend rides with a San Francisco-based motorcycle club, the Fog Hogs, as well as in motorcycle shops, biker bars and at Harley festivals.

By the 1980s and ’90s, Harley culture, long associated with roughnecks like the Hells Angels, was going mainstream as a new wave of middle class professionals adopted chrome-encrusted “hogs” as a ticket to adventure.

During those years, female enthusiasts were making their presence felt, accounting for 10 to 12 percent of the motorcycling population, she said in a 2003 CNN interview. “Women, who used to be excluded from any position except that of back-seat Betty,” she wrote, “now ride the roads alone or travel in all-women riding clubs.”

In her book, Ms. Joans delineated the bands of both male and female bikers she encountered in her research. Women had their own subcategories, including “the lady biker” and “the woman biker.”

The lady biker, Ms. Joans told CNN, “rides wonderfully, but she will not wrench,” she said. “She will carry a hair dryer and makeup and condoms in her saddlebag. But she will not go near a set of tools.”

The woman biker, she said, “is kind of her opposite.” “The woman biker will kind of disdain any male help, and will say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. It’s my bike. I can tear it down and build it up again.’”

While male riders tended to travel in packs, women riders often embarked on odysseys, solo rides, sometimes covering multiple states. “Between the birthings and the dyings, the weddings and the ceremonies, comes the odyssey,” she wrote.

“The trip, this odyssey, is the testing ground for the woman biker,” she added. “We go off by ourselves because we must.”

Barbara Joan Levinsohn was born on Feb. 28, 1935, in Brooklyn, the only child of Rubin Levinsohn, who owned a clothing store in Lower Manhattan, and Eleanor (Davidson) Levinsohn, a junior high school teacher.

After graduating from Midwood High School in 1952, she enrolled in Brooklyn College, where she received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1956, followed by a master’s degree in sociology and anthropology from New York University in 1965 and a doctorate in anthropology from the City University of New York in 1974.

By 1956 she had married her first husband, Irwin Schwartz, but they divorced in 1970. She subsequently adopted the last name Joans.

In 1974, she and her boyfriend, Kenneth Harmon, as well as her two sons, moved to Santa Cruz, Calif. They married the next year as Ms. Joans took a teaching post at San Jose State University. It was Mr. Harmon, a computer programmer and longtime motorcycle enthusiast, who got her into riding with the Fog Hogs.

In addition to her son Howard, Ms. Joans is survived by another son, David Schwartz, four grandchildren and one great-grandson. Mr. Harmon died in 2021.

While Harleys became a passion, she did not start out on one. At 56, Ms. Joans bought her first motorcycle, a lightweight Honda Rebel 250.

“And then at 60 years old, she switched to a Harley Low Rider,” Ms. Chesler said, referring to Ms. Joans’ hulking Beast. “I said, ‘Have you lost your mind? That’s 650 pounds. How are you going to pick it up when it falls down?’ And she said, ‘You just do.’”

Alex Williams

2024-04-17 22:10:20

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