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.
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
and ability to travel independently. As a woman, you have exercised your right to travel independently on your own by bike.
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
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 encounters 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 a virginity. The journalist is spat upon and punched by local male motorcyclists.
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
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
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.
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.
* 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
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.
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.
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.
Walker, Angus. Women Allowed to Bicycle as N. Korea Turn Wheels of Change. In NBC World News. Aug. 17, 2012.