Published on April 30th, 2013 | by hrodemann3
Are Bicycles a Sustainable Tool for Feminist Social Revolution?
Women began cycling during the late 1800s, and were often met with fierce derision because they defied and threatened the oppressive social norms dictating that they must stay at home. The advent of the bicycle meant that girls were liberated to direct their own movement freely and unaccompanied. Females abandoned their ridiculously heavy skirts and corsets and started wearing “bloomers,” or loose fitted pants; but this new-found freedom and blatant dress code violations came at a price.
In the 19th century the bicycle was deemed inappropriate; women who rode were ridiculed, verbally assaulted, and sometimes even fined for being so “scandalous“. These pedal revolutionaries were considered indecent, crude, and smutty. According to writer Clare S. Simpson, women who rode bikes were:
“…far from respectable: not exactly prostitutes, perhaps, but possibly women of loose morals or with an undeveloped sense of propriety.”
But this is outdated history, right?
While I was riding my bike last month a man screamed that he would rather put me in his sandwich instead of the “chorizo” he was eating. A week later another male whistled and hooted that I was “beautiful” and “hot”. Many of my male friends have posters of bicycles and women depicted in awkward sexy positions with contrived pouting sultry faces. They often pose with high heels, short shorts, skimpy tank tops, make up caked on and stylized hair. These images are overtly sexualized, and somewhat ludicrous. I mean, why would anyone wear high heels to ride a bicycle?
These images are problematic because they create an unrealistic standard to which every woman is expected to aspire. Many men who observe females riding bicycles do not see a sensible sustainable method of transportation, but instead instantly objectify us, and seem to think that we are merely some sex toy that is bent over for their pleasure and amusement.
Bicycling as a Revolutionary Act
When we ride are we expected to be like those overtly feminine poster girls? We can’t sweat, can’t mess up our hair, can’t have runny eyeliner and can’t even fall down, because bruises are unattractive and not lady-like. When we challenge society’s gender rules we are then frequently masculinized, and considered to be “bad-ass” and “one of the boys”.
But patriarchal hegemony wants us to believe that our value lies only in being attractive to men, so we fight against being strong and capable, and instead strive to be superficially idolized, like the silly women in these illustrations. In 1896, the activist Susan B Anthony stated that bicycling:
“…has done more to emancipate women than any single other thing in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”
This is still true in many cases. Many girls in India now have a chance to go to school because of access to free bicycles. Females in Nepal have a lower risk of being raped due to the freedom provided by bicycles.
Cycling also helps the body stay fit and is environmentally friendly, and provides numerous benefits that allow for self autonomy, mobility, and health, all factors that help our society to evolve and improve. Although when I am riding my bike, some days it still feels like some people do not understand just how truly liberating riding a bicycle can be.
top bicycle image via ArtCrank poster show pin-up illustration by Harry Ekman b& w bike photo via Rhonda Winter