May is National Bike Month, and I myself have been taking to the road more often this year on my little red Specialized brand hybrid. To get myself back in the saddle, I started checking out print and online resources for women who cycle. In the process, I stumbled over a ton of very cool information about the role of the bicycle in what many call (whether with admiration or sarcasm), “women’s liberation.” Allow me to turn you on to some of this info, as well as resources for further study.
The bicycle took a while to assume its modern form, so there are all sorts of claims upon the earliest bike invented and manufactured. The really old models tended to be called the velocipede. These claims of originality and invention take up a good portion of the nineteenth century, and come from countries including Germany, Scotland, France, and more. The first commercial bicycle that we might recognize as similar to the ones in our garages was put out by a French company in about 1863. Designed by a blacksmith, the model was first called the Michaux or “boneshaker.” Having recently rattled down a few country roads on one of these contraptions, I can totally relate. The michaux hit America around 1865.
You may notice that this period in history coincides with when a lot of uppity women were starting to agitate for more civil liberties. And, believe me, people were agitated. Especially men, but also other women who were afraid their raucous sisters would upset the whole apple cart.
The uppity women were also called “new women” by themselves and others. It had both positive and negative meaning, depending on who was using it. Throughout the period approximately between the 1850s and the 1930s, when a lot of women (specifically in the US and UK) were fighting for and getting not only the vote but also access to higher education and more types of professional work, the bicycle became an easy and accessible form of transportation. Susan B. Anthony, one of the most uppity women on record, is said to have written:
“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
In “Wheels of Change” (cited below), Sue Macy quotes a magazine from the 1890s about the importance of bikes to increasingly independent women:
“To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed which they rode into a new world.” (Munsey’s Magazine, May 1896).
I have worked for over fifteen years at a domestic violence program. I can tell you that three key points of control that are exerted upon women (and other victims of abuse or oppression) are food/shelter (basic need), communication, and transportation. One of the prime red flags that someone is being controlled is that they are prevented in all sorts of creative ways from getting around without their controller’s oversight and permission. For example, many battered women were never “allowed” to get a driver’s license. If they have one, they are denied access to a vehicle. Even getting rides from friends and family (or taking a bus) are limited through the use of curfew and jealousy-justified tantrums or even beatings. So, I really resonated with this information about how much old fashioned guys hated it when women got hold of bicycles.
Patriarchy isn’t just a domestic issue. It’s a cultural and a geo-political one. This was true in the past as much as it is, now. All sorts of cultural rationalizations came out to discourage women from cycling, or to give their men a justification to forbid it. The easiest and most humiliating was to hit women where they depended upon success for their survival and sense of self. They (and the men in their lives) were told that cycling would make women ugly, and also that cycling was a sign of an oversexed and immoral woman. Riding a bike could therefore jeopardize women’s chances of marriage and of broader social success.
The oversexed thing is a typical move of the patriarchy, and was also applied when women started riding horses astride rather than side-saddle, like some demented rodeo mermaid. The rather obvious idea is, as I even heard said by men of my grandfather’s generation, women who ride “just like to have something between their legs.” This tactic of humiliation was (and sometimes still is) used to keep women afoot and close to home. You can look at very patriarchal countries today to see this still in full use. But if we’re honest, you can still find it closer to home.
The most laughable tactic the Victorian men tried was to coin the term (pandered about as a genuine medical condition) “bicycle face.”
“Bicycle face” was allegedly something that happened to women who rode too much. It included red complexion (when the lily white was idealized since it could only be attained by upper class white women). Bicycle face also involved bulging eyes with dark circles under them and a chronically grim expression. Well, that won’t do. We all know good girls smile every minute of the goddamned day, so they will look more pleasing. Right? Right?!? Better stay off those bikes, ladies. Because, as Victorian doctors claimed, “Your face will freeze that way.”
Of course, some of these guys still thought that women acting pissed off about their general lot in life (AKA “hysteria”) was attributable to the mischievous meanderings of a floating uterus. Go figure. I’m sure Victorian and Edwardian era women were thrilled when they finally bit and clawed their way into higher education and found a medical program of that caliber. Seriously—I’m sorry for the venom. My uterus clearly just drifted up and smacked me right in the amygdala. Rolling on….
During the period in the US and the UK when women were agitating for the vote (and other concessions, as mentioned), the bicycle became one of their symbols. Sometimes the women were taking this on, themselves. Amelia Bloomer invented her shocking skirt-pants largely so that women could cycle. With a bike, they could go farther and faster. They could fit more into their day. They could take jobs or go to classes farther from home and still attend to their domestic obligations. Yes, they did those, too. But, from the perspective of the patriarchy, the bicycle became a negative symbol of a bossy, lazy, over-entitled woman. It was pretty much the equivalent to a witch’s broomstick. Is it a coincidence that the Wicked Witch of the West (West Kansas) rode a bike? I think not.
During the New Woman/Suffrage era, women on bikes terrorized the dreams of establishment men. In some cases, it was justified. Cyclists began appearing in suffrage parades. Women could get to more demos and cause much more trouble when they had a set of wheels. One period paper recorded an incident where militant suffragettes used their bikes to block Winston Churchill’s car. History does not record for us the ultimate impact of this domestic terrorism. It’s possible his cuppa got cold.
Though modern gadgets often trend with the wealthy classes first and longest, the bike seems to have become a tool of the working classes and of minorities fairly early. Yes, there were African American suffragettes. A prominent national franchise of clubs in the US was the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). And, yes, some of them rode bikes. The cycle inevitably became a tool for activism, recreation, and daily life for a broad swatch of humanity. You don’t have to nourish a bike with hundreds of pounds of feed and gallons of water, as you would a horse or ox. Transportation (besides walking) suddenly became more accessible.
Some of the greatest innovators within cycling were both women and “minorities.” One of the most impressive early female cyclists was a Jewish Immigrant and working mom from Boston named Annie Londonderry-Kopchovsky. On a $5000 bet, she left Boston in 1894 and began a bike tour of the globe. The idea was to prove that the “New Woman” could take care of herself and attain vast accomplishments, right along with the guys. Yes, she completed her trip. She also collected some of the first athletic endorsement money by riding with a Londonderry Spring Water Company sign on her bike. And (gasp!), she rode in bloomers!!!
The benefits of bike ownership are still much the same, today. In more wealthy economies, we value them as a way to stay fit and to lower our “carbon footprint.” Around the world, cycles are still a barrier-shattering tool for women and men who might otherwise never have the time to get back and forth to work and school, thereby meeting life-goals. And, they are still sometimes persecuted for it.
Let’s get real. As they pointed out in Munsey’s Magazine, bicycles are not toys. There are people in the modern world, just as there were in the past, who are willing to face real danger to assert their right to bike. A lot of them are women and girls. Here are just two of many examples.
A New York Times Article from 2016 talks about how the right of women to ride bikes in public in Gaza has been under attack in recent years, even though it had managed to attain normalcy for a few decades in the past. Political regime change and patriarchal agendas seem to have their hands on those cultural handlebars. And in Iran, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has placed a ban on women riding bikes. This 2016 article from the UK Telegraph details some grassroots activism Iranian lady cyclists have engaged in. Same story as the suffrage era. The cultural assertion is that good girls don’t go out and about on their own. They don’t even want to. But in the modern era of technology, women and girls are able to challenge this narrative. One woman quoted in the Telegraph article says,
“[after discussing how she has been heckled and threatened by men while riding]…I do not worry nor have any fears, as I am sure the prohibition of biking for women will be lifted in coming years. On that day, I will be proud that I did resist the oppression, as I believe those who oppress us are wrong.”
My blog usually includes something about women writers. I am including a list of books by women and men about the importance of cycling in women’s history (herstory). One of these books was written by the American suffrage and temperance activist, Frances Willard. She writes autobiographically about the heartbreak she felt as a young girl when she was no longer allowed to go out and play, rough and tumble, with the boys. Instead,
“the hampering long skirts were brought, with their accompanying corset and high heels; my hair was clubbed up with pins, and I remember writing in my journal, in the first heartbreak of a young human colt taken from its pleasant pasture, ‘Altogether, I recognize that my occupation is gone.’”
But, Frances got her occupation back, and a set of wheels along with it. Her book, entitled, “Wheel within a Wheel,” talks about the enmeshment of her experiences of cycling and broader aspects of liberation. First published in 1895, it is available in modern reprints.
So, do you have a bike rattling around somewhere, just begging to shake your bones? Maybe it’s even one that you bought for your teen. Or, you may want to go out and find a bike that is just right for you. Modern technology continues to make bikes more comfortable, with designs for unisex, women, and men and other components built to specialize on paved roads, trails, or mountainsides. Recumbent bikes and trikes also give more cycling options to people with limited mobility.
Included below is a book written for new women bikers. As one of your ranks, I suggest a little research before you get started. It could be the difference between a good experience that you want to repeat (been there) or a literal ass-busting torture session (been there, too). So, google some stuff. No need to reinvent the velocipede wheel.
My cheat sheet is as follows:
Assess your life and think about what kind of riding you would like to do, and what kind of riding is easiest for you to do. Where do you live? Can you commute to work or shops (or halfway, and take public transport the rest)? Are you close to recreational trails or bike paths? Are you absolutely nuts, and ready to charge right into your first triathlon? Props! I’ll be right behind you. Actually, I’ll be way, WAY behind you.
Once you know your goals, you can research the type of bike that is designed to help you meet them.
Look for state and local bicycling groups. In Maine, we have a state coalition that gives us organized rides and lots of support. We also have a once yearly bike sale where used bikes of good quality are bought and sold. When I went through this process, I researched the kind of bike I wanted and then found the exact thing at this sale. Therefore, I got a used but well-maintained bike for less than a third of its original market value. Especially when you are just beginning, it’s probably best to start cheap if you can. But if you get a used bike, take some of your savings and invest in a tune-up from your local bike shop (LBS). You may want to upgrade components, as well, like the type of seat. If you want to train in a structured way, your LBS can put on a cheap odometer. Rear-view mirrors and head/tail lights are also safety options for road riding. Do as much or as little as you like (though a helmet must be a non-negotiable, and will be required for organized rides). The important thing is to get out there!
This National Bike Month, I hope this information has inspired you. As the suffragettes used to say, “deeds, not words.” Let’s ride!
Books (with amazon links):
Around the World on Two Wheels: One Woman, One Bicycle, One Unforgettable Journey (Annie Londonderry’s World Ride): Peter Zheutlin, Citadel Press
A Wheel Within A Wheel, by Frances Willard, 1895
Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a few flat tires along the way), by Sue Macy, National Geographic, Reprint 2017
Our Bodies, Our Bikes, by Elly Blue, Microcosm Publishing, 2015
Every Woman’s Guide to Cycling, by Selene Yeager, Penguin