Now that winter is around the corner, the thought of putting my bicycle away for the season breaks my heart. I rarely miss having a car now that I can get around quite alright on my bike, and thanks to a few friends, this is the best vehicle I ever had. I know there are plenty of people out there who absolutely adore their bikes as well. For starters, it’s free transportation (after you purchase one), it’s a method of exercise and it’s fun. What more? The bicycle has a colourful history that we often forget or don’t even know when we are riding one down the street.
Before the 1890s, the main form of transportation was by horse. The wealthy class who could afford to purchase these “commodities” were able to travel, but with the cheaper invention of the bicycle, this became the popular novelty. Horses everywhere might have been rejoicing for their retirement.
Locally in St. Catharines, the Welland Vale Manufacturing Co. started producing a successful line of bicycles including a popular chainless model. It was Canadian Cycle and Motor Co.’s (CCM) busiest factory, but in 1900, a fire destroyed the building, which was described as “the most disastrous conflagration” that plagued the city causing half a million dollars in damage and putting 500 employees out of work.
The middle class now had a new sense of freedom that came with this mobility. The bicycle was only for certain people though, as riders were typically young, athletic males. Although men were zooming around on their Higher Wheelers or Penny Farthings (the huge tail wheel bicycles), they were also posing huge safety risks. John Kemp Starley then invented the safety bicycle. ‘Safety bikes’ were marketed towards women as well. This is where the bike became controversial.
The bike was able to open doors to a world that women were not previously admitted to. Men were mobile and women were invisible, but that slowly changed.
Women riding around on bicycles posed a large threat to the dominant gender definitions of the time.
In 1895, the newspaper New York World published a list for female cyclists to abide by:
• Don’t faint on the road
• Don’t refuse assistance up a hill.
• Don’t cultivate a “bicycle face”
• Don’t race. Leave that to the scorchers (A fast, reckless cyclist)
• Don’t wear laced boots. They are tiresome
• Don’t go to church in your bicycle costume
• Don’t chew gum. Exercise your jaws in private
• Don’t use bicycle slang. Leave that to the boys
• Don’t go out after dark without a male escort (seems familiar even today)
• Don’t appear in public until you have learned to ride well
• Don’t ignore the laws of the road because you are a woman
• Don’t try to ride in your brother’s clothes “to see how it feels”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, social activist, abolitionist and leading figure of the early women’s rights movement, understood that cycling also stood to liberate women from Victorian notions of womanhood that celebrated weakness and dependency as feminine ‘virtues’.
Women were viewed as belonging to the domestic sphere and did not have suffrage rights, the right to sue or the right to own property, among other things. At the end of the Victorian Era, the women’s suffrage movement was gaining steam among the educated female middle classes who also were part of the paid workforce increasing quickly with the Industrial Revolution.
Susan B. Anthony, American civil rights leader and feminist, also had an insightful way of looking at this new invention.
“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, untrammelled womanhood.”
On one hand the bicycle was a tool for emancipation, allowing women to get to work, creating spaces for athleticism to form and unlocking the freedom to travel. On the other hand, the companies that were manufacturing and selling bikes were benefitting from the desire for women’s self-determination.
Companies had to make riding bikes socially acceptable for women in order to sell more. For example, a woman on a bike threatened the idea of the “natural” state of a woman’s sexual purity.
Conservatives were up in arms because it was thought that the bicycle taught women and girls how to masturbate; unacceptable! This concern seems so far-fetched when today we see bicycle seats being made that have an actual built-in vibrating setting. To address this very serious issue, bicycle seats were made to have holes in the middle to prevent the rider from having any unexpected surprises.
Medical professionals also got in on this bicycle action. Because women’s experiences were medicalized in general during this time, any activity a woman performed was under this authoritative scrutiny. If she masturbated or had an interest in sexuality, she was deemed unfit or ‘invalid’; if anyone showed behaviour nonconforming to the dominant sexual and gender roles, they were institutionalized. Women’s curiosity in the bike for leisure or political reasons was also cause to raise alarm. There were countless publications leaking into the world of advertising that commented on the concerned health of women riding bicycles. Some doctors did not see any negative health consequences, but suggested riding a bicycle would promote reproductive health. A stronger uterus was a reason to celebrate, because she would ditch the bike for a baby later on. What these opinions had in common was the idea that male professionals felt entitled to categorize nonconforming behaviour as an illness.
People were dreadfully worried that Victorian society would collapse if women had access to these sinful contraptions. In National Geographic‘s Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way), the bicycle was quoted as the devil’s advance agent morally and physically in thousands of instances.
Again, to defuse the radical possibilities the bicycle offered, companies unleashed mass propaganda that assured ‘normies’ that women knew their proper place in the home. Women who were unsupervised were shaking the moral foundations because it threatened the notion of chastity and order; even more so if women were off with the same-sex. The bike had to be constructed as the bricks and mortar of heterosexual married life.
The connection between masturbation and married life can be seen in Christopher Thompson’s work as an American historian. “Physicians wondered whether pedalling resulted in female masturbation and might lead women to seek sexual pleasure on their new machines rather than in the marital bed.”
In the recent theatrical production Spin, Evalyn Parry, singer/songwriter and actor/playwright/director, was inspired by the life of Annie Londonderry, the first woman to ride around the world on a bicycle in 1894. The bicycle was absolutely an agent of change for Annie who was married and had three children, but decided to step outside that role for an adventure of a lifetime.
There has been much scholarly research and interpretations of this unique history on women and bicycles. One of the main themes was the want and need for women to control their lives and the backlash they received for seeking such freedom. The bicycle is a historic artifact that symbolizes a barrier women had to overcome to achieve another inch of control over their lives.
Celebrating the bicycle, women and all those nonconforming badasses
Although the bicycle coming out of the 19th century was a luxury for the middle and upper classes, in line with the educated women part of the suffrage movement, the 20th century allowed for more people to start peddling towards a better life. As prices dropped for bikes, companies were no long advertising to just the middle-class.
Does this sturdy piece of transportation still hold promise for those seeking change?
Fast forward to today and the bicycle is still one of the most inexpensive and accessible forms of transportation. In terms of gender parity, most concerns of women riding bikes have faded into the background. However inequalities still exist and find their way into bicycle culture today.
The Grande Boucle, formerly known as the Tour Cycliste Féminin was started in 1984 and was comparable to the men’s Tour de France. Difficulties with sponsorship and interest made it impossible for the race to continue after 2009. The last year of the race it lasted only four days with only 66 riders, where the Tour de France has around 23 days with around 21 teams with over nine riders in each category. The men’s race was established in 1903, showing how much of a head start men had.
A campaign headed by Le Tour Entier supported by the world champion Marianne Vos and the Beijing silver medallist Emma Pooley have been calling for a true women’s Tour de France in 2014, with a petition with over 95,000 signatures. This doesn’t mean there is a natural difference in the two sexes, where men are better at the sport, but historical and social reasons that have cumulated over time that have overshadowed the potential of women, such as fighting the stigma of women riding in the first place. On a positive note, British Cycling reported that over 525,000 women currently cycle once a week in England and in the past 12 months there has been an increase of 63,000 women cyclists. Just fewer than 1.2 million women in England cycle at least once a month.
In North America the ratio of male to female cyclists are 3:1. Overall, 26 per cent of bike commuters are female in the U.S. This number is higher in most of the top 10 cycling cities. The numbers are even more imbalanced in the world of bike repair, especially in terms of those who identify outside the binary gender.
Those who participate in bike culture also seek to carve out spaces that welcome those that fall outside standard definitions of sexualities and genders. Since bike culture and bike mechanics are often cis-male (where an individual’s self-perception of their gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth) dominated, these spaces often discourage people from learning more and getting involved in more active roles. Whether or not folks just want to fix their bikes or learn how to fix their bikes, the spaces that support these activities are what matters most.
All around the world there are solutions to these issues. Programs like the Bicycling Empowerment Network (BEN) in Namibia help train and equip women in Namibia to be bicycle mechanics and instructors. This positions the women to be local transport technology experts, a traditional male role, and gives them access to income, affordable transport and new skills.
In Southern Ontario, programs and groups like the Hamilton Womyn’s Bike Collective, Kitchener’s Recycle Cycles, Toronto Bike Pirates’ Trans and Women Sundays offer women and trans bike repair nights where a welcoming environment is conducive to empowered learning.
All these things and more combined, the bicycle still can be utilized as a liberatory tool that helps those who have been marginalized find self-determination in mobility. The history of the bicycle highlights the fact that emancipation was easier for some women thanks to the wheels that got them there. To avoid romanticizing the bicycle too much, there is still a lot of territory to explore: is the bicycle a liberatory tool for the disabled? What does equality mean for Indigenous, coloured, queer and trans women? How can we get more people on two wheels? What is the connection between feminism, the environment and alternative transportation?
These questions will keep my mind busy while I peddle down the street on my bike enjoying every moment.