Cycling and the continuing emancipation of women

Aunt Gerty to her dearest friends (and her many lovers) was what was termed a ‘difficult women’. Taking inspiration from Alice Hawkins, she adopted the wearing of trousers on her bicycle, thus causing consternation and outrage even before she spoke a word, and she spoke a lot of words.

Alice, her inspiration, was a suffragette. The bicycle became not only a tool to the suffragettes but also a symbol of their movement. Cycling gives a woman a sense of freedom and self sufficiency which was denied to her and her sisters in a period when women were treated firmly as the possessions, or chattels, of men. It may be hard from the young modern to understand how women got into this position, and even harder for them to understand the fight that women, like Gerty, had to undertake on their behalf over a century ago. What galls this woman is that the fight still isn’t over.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a well rounded lady, who campaigned within the suffragette moment said:

“The bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect, and self-reliance.”

During the cycling craze of the 1890’s almost a third of cyclists were women. Compare that to the current (pre-Covid) era when a little of 7% of regular cyclists identify as female.

This does not mean that cycling was accepted as a women’s pursuit of course, in fact far from it. Although the step-through frame allowed women to cycle in a skirt, many found that it was far less cumbersome and far more liberating to wear trousers. This in itself caused outrage amongst women and men alike. Women were perceived as delicate flowers, to be picked in their prime by men and looked after as they bore the fruits that follow as naturally as an apple to the blossom. There were however, like Gerty, roses and hips. Thorny, like their flowery counterpoints, some women were not for being taken by men without leaving a few scratches, and produced not fruits but hips, groups of them standing against the status quo and burnished deep with a pent up anger.

Women have always cycled in protest, from the first suffragettes and those that blocked Winston Churchill’s motorcade, to the women of today who ride for a cleaner climate for their children, and their children’s children. Cycling has changed the lives of women across the world, and will continue to change women lives and even the World itself.

The American, Susan B. Anthony said:

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

The New Women as they became known in the United States became fitter and, with improving health, more and more sort the benefits of cycling. Clubs were established, and women began to cycle collectively as well as undertaking competitions and establishing new records, and feats of endurance. Cycling became not only mass transport, but also a mass participation sport.

In many parts of the World women still do not have the very exciting and privileged life that we live today in the cities of London, Edinburgh, New York, Paris, et al. In many countries, accessing a bicycle is the start of a journey of liberation to a new life. It enables women to access health care, work prospects, education, and independence that would otherwise be denied to them.

But access to opportunities is not just about the developing world. Here in the UK the majority of women still earn less than men, it is abhorrent and our Gerty would be spitting feathers, but it is fact. The bicycle is still one of the cheapest forms of transport, next to walking. A bicycle can provide a social lifeline to women as well as providing a means to accessing educational and employment opportunities. The bicycle still has the power to empower.

I am often referred to as a ‘difficult women’. Men like Donald Trump hate us, hate our vision and our independence. Good. I shall continue to be difficult to anti-cyclists on a daily basis. For heaven’s sake, we just want to get from A to B, then to C and D, without risking nasty injuries and death!

I am pleased to see that women only cycle clubs and groups are starting up again. Originally they came about because men would not let, yes men would not LET, women take part. For those of us who still feel that a minority (I hope) of men exclude women from society, from decent jobs, and from unrestricted social gatherings, the freedom to mix with other women who will then support and inspire each other is not to be underestimated.

With modern traffic, and a level of previously unseen aggression on the roads that we experience in this troubling time, new cyclists of all genders (and none) will find it difficult out there. It can be argued that woman are disproportionately effected by this, and I would upset dear Aunt by agreeing. We have been brought up believing that we can have it all, at a price but we are still fighting for the freedom our sisters thought they had secured for us a century ago. Yes, we can vote and own property, but for many the later part of that sentence is a far away dream. For many equality is something they cannot see applying to them, as women, as any minority group, as anything other than male, mid 30s, successful, and white.

The bicycle is, like a woman, a thing of beauty. And, ladies, it can make your dreams come true.

Additional reading:

Sylvia Pankhurst and Cycling for Suffrage

How the bicycle became a symbol of women’s emancipation (Alice Hawkin’s and women’s cycling in Leicester)

How Women Cycled Their Way to Freedom – World Bicycle Relief.

Pedal on Parliament

Critical Mass

Women in Iran defy fatwa by riding bikes in public – BBC News

The Bicycle as a Vehicle of Protest – The New Yorker

Cycle Sisters – Muslim women cycling in London

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