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How do bicycles empower women?

BY Rosalind Moran

20th Oct 2022 Life

How do bicycles empower women?
Ever since the bicycle was invented in the 1890s, it has been crucial for women's liberation. We find out how women cycled (and later motorbiked) their way to freedom
I love cycling. It’s cheap, convenient, fun, good aerobic exercise, and I adore flying down hills with my clothes flapping like the wings of the technicolour bat I truly am inside.
How striking, therefore, to consider that this freedom—the freedom of cycling, or of biking—is one that was ceded grudgingly to many women, and to some has still not been granted.
The modern bicycle’s first iterations were developed in 1800s Europe, although it was not until 1885 that the first recognisably modern bicycle came into mass production: the Rover, manufactured in Coventry, England.
By the 1890s, bicycles had perks including brakes, pneumatic tyres and a more accessible seat height. These comforts led to cycling gathering momentum as a recreational activity, resulting in the 1890s being known as the “Golden Age of the Bicycle”.

How did the introduction of the bicycle affect women's lives?

Unknown author, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. The arrival of the bicycle gave women greater independence and self-reliance at the same time that women's suffrage was agitating for political rights
Bicycles have proven instrumental in expanding the worlds of many people, but in particular of women.
Two-wheeled transport, and bicycles especially, have long held broad appeal for their affordability and flexible nature. They were lower maintenance than horses in the 1800s and are lower maintenance than cars today.
Bicycles and motorbikes are cheaper to purchase and run than other road transport. Two-wheeled transport options can also afford more autonomy, being less dependent on fares and fixed routes than buses or trains. Bicycles also do not require a licence, or the money and support needed to train for and acquire one.
For women previously confined to their homes and dependent on horses or, later, on cars sometimes controlled by male relatives, bicycles offered a means of travelling independently.
"Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz is introduced riding a bicycle"
The nature of the single-seat bicycle meant that women began travelling more frequently without chaperones, allowing them greater social freedoms and mobility.
In Europe and North America, cycling also heralded the arrival of less restrictive clothing for women as the Victorian dress reform movement took off, engendering new practical fashion that enabled women to engage more easily in physical activity and adventure outdoors.
Bicycles also played a key role in the women’s suffrage movement, for they helped Victorian women meet more freely—not only to socialise, but also to plan political action.
They became symbolic of women’s emancipation and to this day evoke images of the early transatlantic feminist movement. The link between bicycles and the feminist movement are evident even in pop culture.
It is no coincidence, for example, that the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz (1939)—who represents a supposedly threatening, modern, masculine woman by contrast with traditional, hyperfeminine heroine Dorothy—is introduced riding a bicycle. Witches, like feminists, love a good three-speed.

How bikes transformed solo travel for women

Both bikes and motorbikes have given women the freedom to travel safely alone 
Even in my ordinary life, cycling has afforded me various freedoms. When I was 13, my first job was four-and-a-half kilometres away along a rural Australian road with no bus connections. I could not drive, so I cycled.
Now UK-based and without space for a car even if I owned one, my bicycle has become my means of darting out to see friends and of reaching trains with minimal hassle. It helps me access distant green spaces and enjoy more leisure time. Without a bicycle, my schedules would be less tenable, and my life worse.
Beyond such mundane examples, bicycles—and later, scooters and motorbikes—have also provided women with novel and emancipatory possibilities for travel and adventure.
Solo female travellers, historically as well as contemporarily, often face greater safety concerns than men who travel independently, owing to the rarity of solo female travellers in some parts of the world as well as the risk of violent misogyny.
"Between 1894 and 1895, Latvian-born American Annie Londonderry bicycled around the world"
Two-wheeled transport, with its speed and flexibility, offers women a means of travelling both independently and more securely than on foot.
Women recognised this opportunity as early as the 1890s. Between 1894 and 1895, Latvian-born American Annie Londonderry bicycled around the world; and, for all she was the first woman to do so, other women soon dared similar feats.
Bicycle panniers—and more recently, motorbike bags—allow solo travellers to carry provisions and repair tools and travel relatively self-sustainingly.
It is little wonder American social reformer Susan B Anthony said in 1896 that bicycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world”. For white women, at least, the bicycle radically expanded their lives.

The backlash against bikes

This satirical Punch cartoon pokes fun at women cyclists, who many saw as unnaturally masculine
Granted, there was backlash against this emancipation. Social conservatism led some doctors in the late 1800s to propagate the narrative—based around sexual morality—that cycling could teach women masturbation and threaten their chastity.
Today, this sexualisation of women riding two-wheeled transport continues. In motorcycle culture, women riders are often hypersexualised. Consider the abundance of photographs, music videos, and films featuring scantily clad women draped over motorbikes.
"Social conservatism led some doctors in the late 1800s to propagate the narrative that cycling could teach women masturbation"
Such sexualisation is unfortunately common when women move into spaces historically dominated by men. These spaces range from live comedy events, to sports, to military training programmes—and to motoring.
Moreover, the act of women riding bicycles is still perceived as transgressive in certain cultures. In Iran, for example, some cities have banned women from riding traditional bicycles out of modesty concerns.
Meanwhile, anecdotally, an Iraqi acquaintance of mine once shared that she was forbidden from learning to ride a bicycle as a child because her mother feared her hymen would break. The opportunity to ride bicycles—and to do so free of sexual moralising—is still something not all women have.

Pedalling to freedom

Personally, I feel grateful towards women who had opportunities to test patriarchal limitations on women’s mobility and behaviour by riding bicycles and motorbikes, and who took these opportunities, helping to normalise women’s freedom to move about independently.
Such actions have had intergenerational benefits for many women. I even see these benefits within my own family.
For instance, in the 1950s, my maternal grandmother left rural Australia to spend three years as a young woman travelling solo on a scooter around Africa, writing children’s books.
She told her fiancé—who she met in Ghana—that if he wanted to get married, he would have to wait because she already had plans to travel east through Togo, Benin, and Nigeria (he waited, incidentally).
Her family legacy includes a strong intergenerational emphasis on female autonomy—a precedent set by her within our family’s culture.
All families are flawed, but I am grateful that in mine, at least, my grandmother and mother always expressed as much enthusiasm for offbeat pursuits as for family-focused ones. The framed photo of Grandma in our house was always the one of her on her scooter in the Sahara.
There is more to life than travel—but there is less liveliness in existence when one has one’s mobility restricted by other people.
The bicycle created and continues to create myriad opportunities for women all around the world. Here’s to hoping that women—and witches—everywhere are empowered to trade their brooms for wheels should they wish to do so.
There are a great selection of women's bicycles available and with the development of electric women's bicycles you can travel further than ever in the same amount of free time.
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