By: Constance Nothomb
Hold the handlebars and sit tight: It’s time to talk about the most feminist machine of history. Yes, that’s right. Bicycles have always been – both implicitly and explicitly – a symbol of women’s emancipation. And it remains very powerful today.
A little Bit of History
In the late 19th century, women were culturally expected to stay indoors. They could venture outside only with chaperones, in acceptable public spaces. The invention of bicycles provided a kind of mobility which revolutionized this role. Fast, easy to use and inexpensive, the two-wheeled machine represented an autonomous mode of locomotion, allowing women to move around more easily than ever before. Such mobility helped them become more aware of the public climate, gave rise to new conversations and the possibility to freely socialize (LaFrance, 2014; Thorpe, 2017; World Bicycle Relief 2020).
Bikes were practical means for campaigning and drew attention to the cause of women’s rights. But they truly grew as a symbol of liberation because they contributed to changing mentalities. The first thing to highlight would be the fashion shift their arrival initiated. Victorian women wearing corset and dresses with petticoats soon realized they could not ride in such gear. This gave rise to new clothing options such as the boomers, similar to pants. The change seems at first purely external but it strongly contributed to the creation of the image of “The New Woman”, namely a strong, independent, self-reliant lady (LaFrance, 2014; Howat, 2017; Thorpe, 2017).
Susan B Anthony – the American civil rights leader – best summarized the power of bikes on women by writing in 1896, “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood.”
Are Bikes still Important Today?
Today, the bike is still very much used and perceived as a powerful asset throughout the world. Organizations such as the World Bicycle Relief or forums like ‘Bike + Empowerment’ reflect this continuity. The former for instance strives to provide bicycles, especially to women and girls of developing countries, in order to get an easier access to school and therefore, education. They collect testimonies which demonstrate the ever-lasting importance of possessing a bike: “When a bicycle is there, I think everything is possible” – Barbara Lungu (World Bicycle Relief 2020).
This trend also persists in developed regions of the world. The Netherlands especially is known as the land of cyclists. In fact, within the country, 27 percent of all trips are made by bikes which is already 10 percent more than the second country using bicycles the most: Denmark. The prevalence of the use of bikes keeps growing. Here is a graph showing the evolution of the percentage of people who answered “cycling” to the question of the Eurobarometer: “On a typical day, which mode of transport do you most often use?” (ECF).
The Continuous Power of Bicycles
The importance of the bicycle therefore has not faded. On the contrary, its power seems to have risen. Bicycles not only provide autonomy but they also give a sense of safety, especially to women. Looking at street insecurity, it is clear bikes have a speed-advantage in comparison to walking. This reduces the chances of aggressions or unwelcome behavior. And when in an uncomfortable situation, it also allows you to escape from it faster (Bahr, 2016).
Bikes not only reduce the fear of being approached without consent but also give courage to react when assaulted. In fact, while walking women tend to avoid yelling back at a catcaller, women on bicycles are more likely to do so as they feel more confident and have a bigger possibility to escape (Monroe).
Bikes are also increasingly seen as both a shield and a weapon. The object itself can be used as a distance provider to protect oneself from the venue of a stranger. In the same way, it can harm thanks to its rigid constituents. Riders are in a dominant position when confronted with pedestrians (McKay, 2018).
The Side Effects of Biking
Lastly, the ever-growing number of bikers has broadened the scope of this vehicle’s importance. It now goes beyond the bicycle itself but involves related elements such as the infrastructure imagined to facilitate the use of bikes. Factual safety for instance is better ensured through bike lanes which are separated and protected. Not only cyclists risk less injuries since they do not have to share a street lane with cars anymore, but pedestrians also find themselves further from driving roads and therefore, more secure. Perceived safety also rises thanks to biking infrastructure. Distance from cars is one aspect, the environment itself is another. The need for bike lanes and street lights for cyclists forces governments to build larger streets which tends to make people feel more at ease while walking outside. It enables them to have better control over their sight and actions than in a narrow, dark alley (NACTO, 2016; Short, 2019; Sturtz, 2019).
Bahr, E. (2016). Urban Revolutions: A Woman’s guide to Two-wheeled Transportation. Microscom publishing.
ECF (2020). “Cycling Facts and Figures.” European Cyclists’ Federation. At https://ecf.com/resources/cycling-facts-and-figures.
Howat, K. (2017). “Pedaling the path to freedom: American women on bicycles.” National Women’s History Museum. At https://www.womenshistory.org/articles/pedaling-path-freedom.
LaFrance, A. (2014). „How the bicycle paves the way for women’s rights.“ The Atlantic. At https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/06/the-technology-craze-of-the-1890s-that-forever-changed-womens-rights/373535/
McKay, B and M. McKay (2018). „How to use a bicycle for self-defense.“ Art of Manliness. At https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/how-to-use-a-bicycle-for-self-defense/
Pinder, M. (2020). “Bikes + Empowerment.” Bike Minds. At https://bikeminds.ca/2020/11/27/bikes-empowerment/
Sturtz, R. (2019). „Cycling lanes reduce fatalities for all road users, study shows: Roads are safer for motorists, pedestrians and cyclists in cities with robust bike facilities.“ ScienceDaily. At https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190529113036.htm.
Short, A. (2019). „Separated Bike Lanes Means Safer Streets, Study Says.“ StreetsBlog USA. At https://usa.streetsblog.org/2019/05/29/protect-yourself-separated-bike-lanes-means-safer-streets-study-says/.
Thorpe, J. R. (2017). “The Feminist History of Bicycles.” Bustle. At https://www.bustle.com/p/the-feminist-history-of-bicycles-57455.
World Bicycle Relief (2020). “How Women Cycled their Way to Freedom.” World Bicycle Relief. At https://worldbicyclerelief.org/how-women-cycled-their-way-to-freedom/.