Women, the Bicycle, and Finding Freedom

“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.”  Susan B. Anthony

Ladies, we’ve come a long way. Since the late 19th century, women have been forging the way, demanding equality and attempting to put an end to ridiculous ideas of gender roles. It may not come as a surprise that the humble bicycle was one of the catalysts for change, providing a new sense of freedom to a generation of women repressed by fashion, sexism and misinformation. I have come to find that, while women of today enjoy many liberties our fore-mother didn’t, we continue to struggle against gender bias’, and from my experiences, the bicycle has once again been a catalyst for change. But how did we get to this point?

Female Cyclist and their "Safety" bicycle, circa 1900 (Photo courtesy of the Larry Hart Collection

In the 1870’s, the “Safety” bicycle was invented. The first of it’s kind to feature two wheels of the same size powered by a drive chain, it was much easier and safer to ride than the “Ordinary” or “Penny Farthing”, inspiring more women to give it a try. By the 1890’s, the “New Woman”, those who broke convention, worked outside the home, and became active in the suffragette movement, found the bicycle became a means to show how equal she was to her male counterparts.

Bloomers became essential for practical riding. Photo courtesy of SOAR blog

No longer were women dependent on men for transportation, and this gave them an incredible opportunity to find freedom in two-wheeled travel. They gained physical mobility, travelling beyond their neighbourhoods, and broadening their horizons. Fashion also followed suit, and the restricting corsets and hooped skirts of the Victorian woman were quickly dismissed for looser clothing, eventually leading to the adoption of Bloomers as common cycling attire. As someone who studied the history of Fashion Design, I feel compelled to argue that if it hadn’t been for the invention of the Safety bicycle, fashion as we know it today would have experienced a slower, less liberating transition for women.

Even the upright bicycle we know today – often referred to as a “girl’s” bike - has its roots in the early versions of the Safety. Misguided health professionals in a male dominated profession worried that the bicycle could compromise a woman’s sexuality. Straddling a saddle could lead to stimulation, possibly leading to masturbatory tendencies and a destruction of their moral fibre. As such, a smaller, less cushioned saddle was developed and handle bars were raised to a less aggressive position, leaving women sat more upright. The irony would be that in an effort to reduce other potential pleasures, this modification made riding a bicycle easier and more comfortable woman, increasing the adoption of this means of transportation and women’s freedom.

As with all progress, even the bicycle faced opposition. In the early 20th century, as the private automobile grew in popularity, two-wheeled travel began to decline. Eventually, popular opinion deemed the bike to be more of a child’s toy than a means of transportation, or something meant for recreation and sport on weekends or holidays. With increased motor traffic, the roads became a fatal place for cyclists, causing more and more women to quit bicycle transport. This perception has not changed in the passing decades, as is evidenced by the large majority of cyclists who dominate city streets – armoured cyclists in spandex, hunched forward, risking life and limb as they race along busy streets. The average woman, especially those with children, wouldn’t dare ride a bike in those conditions, and has lead to a women, especially in North America, frequently making up a mere third of cyclists on the road today (Figure 1).

Figure 1 - While Vancouver tops the North American lists, female cycling numbers still have a long way to go to match our European counterparts (Source: City Cycling by John Pucher)

Things are changing, however slowly, as popular culture has begun to re-envision the power of the bicycle as a means of daily transportation. As gas prices sky-rocket, using a car to run errands or shuttle kids around is very cost-prohibitive, inspiring people to leave the car at home and try riding to the grocery store, school and classes. Many cities across North America are also seeing the value in the cycling infrastructure widely used throughout Europe. Separated cycles tracks and pathways are increasingly common, providing safer means to get from point A to B. I have met many mothers over the years who cite the downtown cycle tracks in my city of Vancouver as the reason they started riding around with their children. In fact, a 2008 study of the demographic of cyclists in the City of Vancouver found that women made up nearly forty percent of cyclists (Figure 1), the highest among other major North American cities.

Our daughter showing how simple the freedom of two-wheeled travel is. (Photo by: Chris Bruntlett)

Even though we are experiencing an upswing in female riders, there is still work to be done. Thankfully, there are many women worldwide who are furthering the conversation. In the past ten years, the number of cycling related blogs written by women has experienced a surge, with quick searches turning up lists of hundreds of such bloggers. Like me, they are sharing their stories of success, and the challenges we continue to face as women and cyclists. By freely writing about our experiences, we offer inspiration to women curious about riding a bike but perhaps too intimidated. This broader conversation is needed, especially when most bike retailers are owned and operated by men, and the availability of less sporty bicycles still limited, contributing to wide-spread adoption by female riders remaining slow. It certainly isn’t encouraging when my own experiences have included women and men alike chastising me for riding in long skirts and heels.

I'm confident that images like this one will once again become a normal depiction of cycling and the women doing it. (Photo by: Chris Bruntlett)

I remain positive, though. Women (and men) are continuing to push back, just as our counterparts did in the 1890’s. Safer streets and better infrastructure are being demanded by citizens tired of fighting for space on the roads. Images of happy people are continually cropping up in magazines and literature, and even on city streets, where civilized cyclists commute in suits, ties and dresses, and families ride together to schools, activities and even groceries. I am energized by the number of women who, like me, refuse to adhere to “acceptable” cycling clothing, finding them ridiculous and over-complicated. It is our responsibility to keep fighting for our own freedom, and the freedoms of our daughters to come. By demanding better, we are advancing the conversation, making me hopeful for what’s to come for female riders everywhere.