Cycling

Cycling Lifestyle: Living an Unconscious Feminist Life

As a woman, if you cycle several times per week, you may be more feminist than you realize. You are living a feminist life, if you are cyclist.  Even if you insist that you aren’t a feminist.

Shopping at Kitsalano Farmers' Market. Vancouver BC 2012. Photo by J. Becker

Shopping at Kitsalano Farmers’ Market. Vancouver BC 2012. Photo by J. Becker

Long View Backward: Women’s Right to Travel Independently
Let me explain. Take a big step back.  You are a tiny speck  in the big international community of women worldwide. You are also a tiny life spark on a centuries-long road of not just cycling distance, but time and history:  a continuum  of women’s efforts, struggles and achievements in all spheres of human activity. That includes the right

Getting around freely on bike. Calgary 2013. Photo by J.Chong

Getting around freely on bike. Calgary 2013. Photo by J.Chong

and ability to travel independently. As a woman, you have exercised your right to travel independently on your own by bike.

Chinatown Toronto 2013. Photo by J. Chong

Chinatown Toronto 2013. Photo by J. Chong

Do not take for granted this right which is an expression of perhaps unconscious personal independence.  ‘Cause not all women  even in the 21st century feel their own society makes them feel free  to hop onto a bicycle and willy nilly,  go anywhere on their own safely.

21st Century- Still Unable to Bicycle Freely
Most Saudi Arabian women were not able to bike publicly and legally until 2013  because of societal restrictions which require them to cover up in the hot desert sun and have a male chaperone.  Even now, they are only allowed to bike in restricted areas –parks and recreational areas.  Saudi Arabia is also the same country that still outlaws local women from driving.  Also safe cycling infrastructure is not widespread in the shiny  modern and increasingly urbanized areas as in ie. Dubai.

Do we see many women from more traditional rural villages in India or various parts of Africa, cycling for transportation in huge numbers?  Reasons are complex.  If there is widespread poverty, lion’s share of responsibilities of child care, elder care and

Enjoying autumn bike ride. Calgary 2011. Photo by J. Chong

Enjoying autumn bike ride. Calgary 2011. Photo by J. Chong

housework for some women in traditional roles, along with any regular paid job, it would not be a supportive environment for a woman to get a bike, much less have energy to bike much.

This year, a solo female American bike tourer  discovered after several days of cycling in Egypt, she had not seen any local Egyptian women on a bike. Whenever she encountered male pedestrians and drivers, she was harassed. After confirming with other visiting cyclists, Egyptian women avoid cycling and other solo outdoor sports, due to male harassment.

She discovered from a Palestinian journalist, that Palestinian women don’t bicycle after puberty, because of conservative Muslim belief that bicycling will cause loss of  virginity.  The journalist is spat upon and punched by local male motorcyclists.

Cycling with child through Stanley Park. Vancouver BC 2013. Photo by J. Chong

Cycling with child through Stanley Park. Vancouver BC 2013. Photo by J. Chong

Progress in conservative Muslim countries, is slow. But here’s a rare group of Afghan women training regularily for competitive cycling.

Interestingly, North Korea banned women from cycling  1996 – 2012.  Its male-dominated political leadership deemed it too unlady-like.

From Low Income to Royalty: Making a Case for Bicycling
In North America, we are beneficiaries of the women’s suffragette movement in both the U.S. and Canada. The movement accelerated in the late 1890’s and coincided with

Relaxed cycling --any style on early evening ride. Calgary 2013. Photo by J. Chong

Relaxed cycling –any style on early evening ride. Calgary 2013. Photo by J. Chong

women jumping onto bikes in their skirts and cycling bloomers – aka modified baggy knickers.  Into the early 1900’s, women suffragettes in the U.S. and England adopted bicycling as part of their broader women’s rights campaigns.

Dutch Queens and Princesses Smitten with Cycling
Even some wealthy women in higher social classes were thought to be improper to bike. In 1897, the 16 yr. old Dutch Princess Wilhelmina became smitten with bicycling while visiting Vienna with her mother, Queen Emma.  But alas, back home, she was

Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands enthusiastically returns to cycling in her 40’s among locals after her mother dies. She was forbidden to cycle after pleading her case when she was a 18 yr. old princess. Photo taken in 1930’s.

forbidden to cycle since it was seen as improper for a future royal heir.  She did not win after pleading her case to Raad van State (Council of State). However after she became queen at 18, one of her first acts as  ruling queen, was to learn to ride her bike that she shipped from Austria. After her mother died, Queen Wilhelmina was cycling in her 40’s more often with her children in the 1930’s. Later when she took refuge in London, England during WW II, she couldn’t resist cycling on a used bike several times.

Below in the video on the Prince, heir to the throne when Queen Beatrix willingly abdicates in 2013, are later, footage of different Dutch queens cycling through history.  My favourite one is Queen Juliana, well beyond her 40’s (?) who loved cycling and looked forward to official bike rides. (Fast forward to 1:25 to see her joyfully outpacing her male entourage in her prim dress.)

Now, ask yourself if one day, someone revoked your right to bike because it was improper for a woman to cycle.  Tell me, as a regular cyclist, you would not protest.

My Moments of Connectivity Between Cycling and Feminism
However I submit, that a feminist, is not merely defined as not only a supporter of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” (Oxford English Dictionary).  For a cycling woman, feminism isn’t just about struggles, it is also about living a life that expresses  personal independence, freedom, better health and sustainability.

Inspired young cyclist takes doll for bike ride too. Vancouver BC 2012. Photo by J.Chong

Inspired young cyclist takes doll for bike ride too. Vancouver BC 2012. Photo by J.Chong

Here’s my hit list  of times, when cycling pushes my feminism hot button. Stuff that irritates but other high notes that draws out some wonderful, personal eureka moments because of cycling:

  • Why do major international men’s bike races, still feature model-beautiful podium girls who present the champs with kisses and flowers?
  •  I realize I do a lot less fashion clothes shopping:  I’m cycling and having too much fun to get off the bike. It’s liberating to worry less about fashion trends.
Dropping off bike at bike valet parking. Trout Lake Farmers' Market, Vancouver BC 2013. Photo by J. Chong
Dropping off bike at bike valet parking. Trout Lake Farmers’ Market, Vancouver BC 2013. Photo by J. Chong

 *  I walk into the city’s largest bike store and wonder why on earth, the women’s cycling apparel wear is way over in the far, quiet corner upstairs away from the crowd buzz on ground floor?

*  And I can’t find any yellow or high visibility-coloured cycling jackets  in extra small women’s sizes after visiting 5 bike stores.  Didn’t they say the market  share for women cyclists is growing in North America??

  • I can bike in whatever clothing that I’m comfortable  –even high heels. (But I’m not interested in being uncomfortable even though there are other women who do it. More power to them.)
  • My purse is my bike pannier.
  •  I wonder when I’m going to see a daily critical mass of a lot more women commuter cyclists:   I cycle downtown daily in a city with over 1 million people:  looks like every
    Utitly cycling with a load.  Olympic Village, Vancouver BC 2013. Photo by J. Chong

    Utility cycling with a load. Olympic Village, Vancouver BC 2013. Photo by J. Chong

    15th cyclist passing by me, is a woman.  Maybe they are all in the suburbs. (But we’re not hearing from many women in the suburbs wanting to commute by bike and demanding for cycling infrastructure.)

*  If I get helmet hair, it’s not as important as my own health. It’s not about how I look.  (Though other women might disagree.)

 I churn homeward from the grocery store with 25 lbs. of food and wares on bike and up over a long hill.

Yes, my cycling lifestyle is how much I value my personal mobility anywhere, any time. My cycling is an ordinary act of independence and freedom, that occasionally reminds me of what it means to be feminist and on the bike.

Enjoying vineyard scenery with baby in bike trailer. Niagara on the Lake, Ontario 2013. Photo by J. Chong

Enjoying vineyard scenery with baby in bike trailer. Niagara-on-the-Lake wine region, Ontario 2013. Photo by J. Chong

More Interesting Reading
Balbao, Laurie. Afghan Women’s Cycling Team is Working All Gears. In Green Prophet. May 20, 2013.

Jordan, Pete. In the City of Bikes: The Story of Amsterdam Cyclist. New York: Harper Perennial, 2013. Page 28-29.

A Girl, Her Dreams and Her Bike.  In Fit, Feminist and Almost Fifty Blog.

Cycling on Toronto's shared  public Bixi bikes by Art Gallery of Ontario. 2013. Photo by J. Chong

Cycling on Toronto’s shared public Bixi bikes by Art Gallery of Ontario. 2013. Photo by J. Chong

Martinson, Jane. Saudi Women Allowed to Cycle –But Only Around in Circles. In The Guardian. Apr. 3, 2013. But only in parks, recreational areas and fully covered.

Palestinian Woman Breaks Taboo To Cycle Across the Gaza Strip. In The Observers. Aug. 31, 2010.

Popova, Maria. Wheels of Change : How the Bicycle Empowered Women. In The Atlantic. Mar. 2011.

Wagenbuur, Mark. A Kingdom for a Bicycle. In Bicycle Dutch Blog, 2013. Commentary and photos of Dutch royal family members, including Queen Wilihelmina from 1930’s to the present.

Arriving by bike. Trout Lake Farmers' Market, Vancouver BC 2013. Photo by J. Chong

Arriving by bike. Trout Lake Farmers’ Market, Vancouver BC 2013. Photo by J. Chong

Walker, Angus. Women Allowed to Bicycle as N. Korea Turn Wheels of Change. In NBC World News. Aug. 17, 2012.

53 thoughts on “Cycling Lifestyle: Living an Unconscious Feminist Life

  1. This post is incredibly fascinating and importantly educational. Having read the first paragraph of your piece, I immediately thought of Saudi Arabia.

    I think many women, at least in North America, take the right to mobility for granted. They simply can’t imagine a world where that’s denied.

    Virginia Wooolf wrote about a “Room of One’s Own;” thanks for taking up the right to bike issue.

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

    • Yes, like a writer’s need and right to create their own art, voice in writing, any woman by necessity has the right to travel based on her own needs and personal decisions within a safe environment. No different from a guy. Safe travels Kathryn, in wherever you go locally and elsewhere..and with curiosity, alertness and interest to learn.

  2. What a great post! It’s important to understand and remember our history, as well as the current/historical global context. Otherwise, we might forgot how easily our ‘rights’ can be taken away…even when it’s something so simple as riding a bike. And like you mention, there are still issues now, things like Levi’s only making bike commuting pants for women! We still have a way to go, but there has been progress.

    • Yes, independent mobility rights by bike or whatever means is allows us to do so much more in life, see more and learn more of the bigger world in person! I guess your point there should be commuting Levi pants for men and women. After all casual pants are more unisex anyway. (Though I can’t fit guy’s pants because even a small person like me needs to women’s cut around the bum.)

  3. I love the video of the Dutch royal family. What a sweet twist that the crown prince and princess have three daughters.

    Women in the west take our freedom too much for granted.

    • I agree with your last paragraph, jbw.
      Good point about the Dutch royal family with their preponderance of daughters. Like you I found parts of the video just wonderful with cycling queens and princesses. Cycling at least temporarily brings them on par with their cycling masses on the streets.

    • Would appreciate more of a reblog and credit source by you with any other stories/comments on your blog. I’m sure your readers would be interested in a few words from you! Hope Waterloo is advancing with cycling infrastructure efforts.

      • Jean, that is enticing but I think I’m the wrong gender to handle such a topic :)

        Would you guest post it? I’m sure our readers would be interested in the changes you’ve witnessed and also our our trajectory would compare to other cities. Also put in a plug for your blog and organization…. If you pass me your email or wordpress user name at waterloobicycles@gmail.com I can set you up with contributor / author access.

        I’d reblog, but I think that would be second best :)

  4. “I can’t find any yellow or high visibility-coloured cycling jackets in extra small women’s sizes after visiting 5 bike stores.” – That sounds really frustrating. I’m tall enough that sizing isn’t usually an issue, except in terms of pant length (grr), and I recognize how lucky I am there. But I do have a suggestion – MEC carries Castelli brand cycling gear and that brand runs quite small in their sizing. There was a BRIGHT orange ultra-lightweight wind/rain shell in the summer collection. Maybe have a look?

    (Full disclosure: I do work for MEC :) – in the bike shop, as one of the mechanics. I also teach the “Bike Maintenance 101″ and “Learn to Ride” series at the Calgary store and I always have a lot of women in the classes. I emphasise how important it is for us all to be able to perform basic maintenance and how bicycles can still be a ticket to personal freedom.)

    • Kim, I just visited MEC and dropped broad hints for Christmas gifts to my partner who cycled with me. Some Castelli jerseys are on sale. Then I read your post just now. :) I’m happy to report that after a 4 month search in bike stores which included Toronto and Vancouver earlier this year, I finally found a lime green MEC cycling jacket that fits me without drowning me or the back tail too long that it catches on the bike saddle.

      I feel guilty: I’ve been shown how to change a flat tire about 4 different times and still haven’t done it. That’s great that you have good enrollment for the bike maintenance courses.

  5. I would add to the cycling-clothing-sexism issue–why are the “women’s” bike shorts noticeably shorter in the inseam than the “men’s?” Yes, we tend to be shorter, but not _that_ much shorter. I bought a pair of men’s shorts; apparently this is one more arena where women are expected to show more skin. It’s okay for girls and boys to ride together if the boys get to ogle the girls. Sigh.

    • I wasn’t aware of this difference since I’m only 5’1″ and hence no interest to even try men’s clothing. However I wear a pair of rain pants and fleecy vest…that’s a teenager size.

    • I’ve heard a lot of women prefer them short because they also wear short skirts and thus don’t want tan lines longer than their hemlines. Also, this may be one area where it’s men’s fashion that’s the cause, because shorter shorts are seen as triathlon shorts and there’s a lot of weird fashion things with roadies and triathletes differentiating themselves fashion-wise.

      My biggest (pun intended) personal issue is that womens’ gear in stores only goes up to maybe a medium in regular clothes, occasionally something that might be a L with an XL/XXL label. I wear a size 16-18, and I pretty much have to buy all my cycling gear online or buy men’s, which doesn’t fit well. Women’s gear fits a tiny, tiny range of the women who actually ride — it’s pretty much all made for size 6-10 tall, athletic-build women with B-cups.

      • I’m a small person, Susan so I wasn’t aware of the larger sizing problem. I often experience problems of finding stuff small enough, yet sized properly for a petite problem. And the fine distinctions between roadies and tri’s in clothing? Who knew.

  6. Amazing post, Jean. I knew about the role of the bicycle in the suffragette movement but I knew none of the other points that you made. While I can no longer bike because of health reasons, I still encourage the efforts of others and you certainly made a great point. Thanks again!

    • While you enjoy and work away on your wonderful garden, I’m out cycling and enjoying Nature. Including other people’s wonderful gardens at the front of their house, along the way. You have loads more patience to nurture a garden.

  7. great post! I agree with you, so many women say to me, Aren’t you AFRAID to ride downtown?
    As a 61 year old female cyclist, sometimes i feel like a trailblazer. Your words say it all

    • Great to see you again mimi! Keep cycling there. Cycling is such an ordinary act of travel, that we take for granted. But not for those who don’t know how to ride a bike but secretly would like to or who haven’t been allowed to ride.

  8. Jean, this is such an interesting post. Well done on finding all these elements of history. You have highlighted so many important points. We are so lucky to live in a country where, as a woman, we are free to ride our bicycle whenever we want too. When I arrived to Australia, I had no car and I would go everywhere with my bicycle. Having my bicycle allowed me to have freedom. I’m sharing your post on my Facebook page too.

    • Cycling around is a great to explore a new city. That’s what I did when I moved to Vancouver and Calgary. It doesn’t mean I know cities thoroughly, since bikes tend to end up in the nicest areas of the city! Glad you found peace on the bike while becoming familiar with your Aussieland city, Rita.

  9. (Here from the TE forums)

    Boston, IMHO, has hit critical mass with women commuters. I was riding the other day on a very heavily-cycled street (yes, Somerville Beacon), and was amused. I stopped at the light, and realized we had sort of all the types of modern commuters represented: me, the multimodal commuter on a folding bike, a fixed-gear rider in a wobbly trackstand with messenger bag, a cruiser-y bike with big baskets, and a roadie in kit with a pannier attached to a nice road bike. And all four of us were women — no dudes.

    After that, while waiting for a bus over in Boston proper, I idly decided to keep count, and I’m consistently seeing between between a 3:1 and 2:1 ratio men:women. (I.e. women are 25-33% of the riders.) That isn’t parity, but it’s enough that it doesn’t feel like it’s a lot of dudes plus a few outliers.

    • That’s great antimony that Boston is having a broader share of women cyclists. It probably took awhile for the numbers to be noticeable. I am noticing a tiny increase of women commuter cyclists compared to 3 years ago when I first moved to here from Vancouver BC. But it would be great for some women who are sitting on the fence about cycling, to make cycling conditions more comfortable.

  10. Pingback: Wrap up of week 1 and posts I liked

  11. Fascinating reading. Thank you for teaching me something new today. We take so many things for granted and it’s so necessary to be reminded of how other women are still struggling for independence and basic freedoms and rights.

  12. I had never thought of cycling this way, but you are right. In much the same way learning to drive a car in my late 30s has provided me with a sense of freedom, I can see how cycling can do the same in a much more accessible way across the different social strata….

    • Probably one doesn’t think of cycling because bicycles are not marketed as status symbols or at least, a highly desired way of transportation in other countries outside of Europe.

  13. Really interesting post. I’ve been reading recently about the connection between cycling and the women’s movement in the late 19th century/early 20th century, as it’s something I never knew about before. I think it’s very easy for those of us who’ve grown up in a world where, as women, we can do pretty much whatever we want, to take that freedom for granted – and to forget that not that long ago it was very different, and for other women around the world it still is very different.

    If you get the chance, I highly recommend watching the film Wadjda, about a young girl in Saudi Arabia who wants to get a bike. It’s a wonderful film that gives a remarkable insight into the lives of women and girls in the country. It’s also the first feature-length film made by a female director in Saudi Arabia.

    • I’ve heard of this film before and hopefully one day will see it. Despite Internet access, unless we consciously look for such information on what else is happening with women and cycling elsewhere in the world OR we visit those places, we wouldn’t really know. Keep up with your blog, by the way.

  14. Thought provoking! We often take for granted the freedom that we have in Canada! I too have found my local bike shops cater to the men and that the small selection of women’s apparel appears to be an after-thought. That being said… I understand that they are in the business of sales and many of these items stay on the shelves all season because there are so few women’s riders. Great for me as I can get some awesome end of season deals.

    • Cycling just around town.. take every advantage for the the bike that sits unused in the garage. What appears to be the % of women cycling in your area? 10% of the local cycling population? For me, the awesome deals only work if there’s size xs or s sizing. Which isn’t that often.

  15. Fantastic post & a wonderful blog; I’m so glad that you found mine yesterday & took a moment to comment, because that has led me to your writing. Your blog is fantastic & right on the money! I find myself nodding along! Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for visiting. May your bike journeys offer good things to see and learn along the way. Oh yea, I agree that Lion’s Gate Bridge with now the better bike enclosed lane, helps reduce some of the fear of heights. I just avoid it on a winter day!

  16. I’m so glad I found your blog by accident! I have been cycling for a few years now in Australia and France, and I can say that I share your frustrations with both the bike shops (& women’s clothing) and also with the low percentages of women cyclists.

    We did a lot of riding with mostly male groups in France, who I must say were all fantastic and encouraging. While the organised rides usually had a lot more males, one thing I did love seeing in France was the number of older women (in their 60s, 70s and even 80s) who ride around their villages. So nice to see and so different from Australia.

    • I can only assume that the group cycling you did in France was a blend for recreational and fitness reasons plus cycling for a decent distance or with a couple of hills. I have heard that Paris and Strasbourg (where I did cycle with my partner from Germany), is different where there are more women cycling several times per week. Makes me wonder if French women are otherwise intimidated by what their male cyclists doing.

      For past few years I’ve been participating in an international women’s cycling Internet forum (that is dominated by American women) where there’s quite a number of women cycling from their mid-30’s and well beyond their 50’s. I will turn 55 next year… For certain cycling turns any stereotype on its head as one ages. :)

      Hope you find ways of recreating your French extended stayover. Maybe through recipes or music? Or bike touring Aussie wineries? How often do you cycle?

      • Yes, the group cycling you describe was exactly what we did, eg one morning per week was a very leisurely 40km with a mixed group, another morning per week was around 100km with some hills with a small group of mainly guys, sometimes other women. We also participated in the organised ‘randonees’ that all the local cycling clubs host (every single village, no matter how small, has a cycle club!) which were always 100km with hills, and included a nice feed half-way around :D

        I’m really not sure about the French women and I think there are possibly some gender issues, as once I asked another lady “where do the women ‘go’?” when we had just left the feed station and al the men were using all the trees along the road – her reply was “we DON’T! We go at home!” I solved that problem by buying a Shewee, but that is another story, haha!

        I am about to turn 50 (any day) and looking forward to a lot more cycling. My husband and I both commute as often as we can and we do have plans in motion to re-create our French escape too :)

        • I do 100km. rides in 1 day only a couple times annually –at most. This is not considered the norm for most people, we have to remember that from ordinary cycling perspective.
          But we are kindred spirits. :)

          As for the Shewee, you’ll have to one day convey the story. For certain, after moving to the flat prairies, where lots of trees are not frequent, it’s a drag for washroom time when cycling in rural prairie areas when there are no bushes, trees, buildings in sight. Quite different from Ontario and British Columbia where I lived and cycled. I read of Josie Dew’s cycling travelogue across several continents where she partially solved the problem by wearing a rain poncho and then stooping away from the road..

          I’m sorry if that many male cyclists were doing by the trees …that alone would be off-putting.

          But now, you will be fit more “comfortably” with some cycling groups.

  17. They have the hot babes presenting the flowers and jerseys at the women’s races too! It’s like the UCI doesn’t know how to do anything differently, even though it’s all changing.

    • Never knew that the flower babes were showing up to bestow flowers for women cycling champs. There’s nothing with the gesture of congratulations, but honestly the well-wisher doesn’t have to be a model-perfect person. Just a genuinely happy person instead of a hired gun for congratulations.

  18. I never thought of myself as a feminist until I read this post. I was lucky that my parents gave me a bicycle that I started riding independently at about 6 or 7. I am now lucky to have a husband who doesn’t object to me going cycle camping on my own when I wish too.
    I live in an area that has a high asian population. None of the ladies will ride a bicycle although I know some who did as children and young teenagers. A lot of the times its because of not wanting to spoil their hair or makeup. Well, when you get over 60 it just doesn’t matter. What does is being fit enough and I am blessed.

    • I didn’t think of cycling as even feminist act and it shouldn’t be if cycling was an ordinary act by everyone world-wide.Have your (female) friends gotten into cycling often? Not talking about the women who are cyclists that you’ve met via the cycling group.

      I still know enough women 60 and over who still wouldn’t want to look messy/sweaty from cycling. For some, that’s why they won’t bike to work since there aren’t enough showers at workplace.

      • Yes, we older female cyclists are few and far between. Mind you, I’ve always said when I grow up I want to be eccentric. LOL. Well, I suppose cycling is seen as a little so.
        I am lucky as I work from home and so can have a a shower when I get back from my morning ride.

  19. Pingback: Sophie’s Story: A Woman Alone in the Middle East | see something

I welcome your thoughts on this blog post:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s