2012 has been a big year for women in cycling. This year’s Reve Tour included six inspiring women who ambitiously completed the entire course of the Tour de France, a feat never before accomplished by a woman’s team. Just after the Reve Tour concluded, the Olympics began in London, giving female cyclists an international platform to showcase their athletic abilities. With competitions scheduled in road, mountain, track, and BMX racing, as well as time trials, women will be representing not just their countries but also a wide spectrum of cycling culture. It’s undeniable that these athletes will inspire women (and men!) the world over to pursue cycling, either as a competitor, recreational rider, or a commuter.

2012 London Olympics women's road race

Canada’s Clara Hughes leading the pack in the women’s road race at this year’s London Olympics 2012. Photographer: Stefano Rellandini. Source: http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/07/30/2230802/flat-tire-kicks-olds-off-medal.html

While each individual is motivated to ride for different reasons, including reducing emissions, staying fit, or the adrenaline of competition, it’s hard to deny the historical link between cycling and women’s liberation. Even Susan B. Anthony, the figurehead of the women’s suffrage movement, endorsed the bicycle as an important tool for women in 1896, saying: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.”

Bicycles made their debut in the United States at a Philadelphia convention in 18761. The bicycle took soon took the nation by storm; within two years, bikes were being manufactured in the States. These early bicycles, which lacked drivetrains, relied on a large front wheel to accelerate and maintain momentum. By 1880, the “safety bicycle” was introduced to the American mass market; pneumatic tires would soon follow1a. These bicycles, like modern fixed-gears, had a chain belt that allowed riders to build and maintain moment by pedaling; the pneumatic tires were considerably more comfortable than the traditional wooden wheel.

By the 1890’s, bike culture had become influential as cyclists lobbied for better roads (fun fact: paved roads were first introduced in the US to accommodate cyclists). It was during this era that women began to use the bicycle as a means of emancipation from traditional gender roles2.

If you look closely, you can see that this circa 1899 photograph is tagged with the phrase, “Sew your own buttons, I’m going for a ride!” You said it, girl! Source: Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2006683468/

Prior to this era, women were expected to wear cumbersome corsets, long, heavy skirts, and high-heeled, narrow-toed boots that restricted their movements and often, their ability to breathe1b.  This traditional costume soon proved impractical for cycling, and as cycling’s popularity increased, women began to challenge the societal conventions that kept them corseted and skirted. Thus, the “rational dress” movement was born2. “Rational dress”, limited the weight of women’s undergarments to a mere (!) 7 pounds. In time, women began to reject cumbersome corsets and long skirts in favor of bloomers, roomy shorts that cinched at the knee. These garments allowed women a wider range of motion and prevented their skirts from being caught in the chain. However, women who adopted this new style of dress did so at their own risk. Women who wore bloomers were subjected to criticism for loose morals, and were even charged with prostitution in some municipalities3.

A vintage image illustrating the moral dangers of cycling for women/

Leaders of the American women’s rights movement such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were supportive of female cyclists’ assertations that they be able to determine their own style of dress. Stanton in particular linked this form of self-determination to cycling, telling a reporter in 1895: “Men found that flying coat tails were ungainly and that baggy trousers were in the way [when cycling] so they changed their dress to suit themselves and we didn’t interfere. They have taken in every reef and sail and appear in skin tight garments. We did not bother our heads about their cycling clothes, and why should they meddle with what we want to wear?”3

Female bicycle messenger

Julia Obear, messenger girl at the National Women’s Party headquarters, demonstrating the latest in cycling gear. In time, women earned the right to wear pants, and cycling culture led the way. Source: Library of Congress.

The right to define her own style of dress was not the only right that female cyclists demanded. Bicycles allowed women to travel by their own strength and volition, negating the need for chaperones. Long confined to the domestic sphere of the family home, women were finally free to explore their communities in which they resided—and their desire to participate in these communities WAS manifested as well. Women began to demand the privileges men had long enjoyed—the ability to own land, manage their own money, and the right to vote 2.

It’s no coincidence that many influential suffragists were also cyclists, or sympathetic to the demands of the burgeoning cycling community3. Frances Willard, an outspoken American suffragist, learned to ride a bike at the age of 53 to demonstrate solidarity with her peers. Willard eventually wrote a memoir about how the bicycle empowered her, entitled A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle, published in 18953. She would become one of the most influential suffragists of her time, especially for her ability to organize women. She was a founding member of the National Council for Women, and eventually become president of the organization4.

The first critical mass? A vintage newspaper illustration depicting female cyclists in London interfering with traffic to demand voting rights from Winston Churchill.

Bicycles have helped to define (and redefine) the gender roles of women in modern times. Bikes have not only emancipated women in the Western world, but more and more women living in developing countries have discovered that bikes allow them greater economic independence. Most Africans in rural areas do not have access to a car, and bicycles allow riders to get to their destination four times more quickly than walking5. In areas where schools for girls are few and far between, access to a bike can be equated with access to an education. A bicycle also makes it easier for women to transport their wares to rural markets and increases their economic opportunities, lessening their dependence on men even in traditionally patriarchal societies.

Nonprofits such as the Village Bicycle Project are dedicated to providing bicycles to these regions. The Village Bicycle Project has provided more than 56,000 used bikes to African communities. More than that, they’ve provided communities in 14 African countries with 19,000 tools for bicycle repair and maintenance, and held 11,000 bike-repair clinics in Sierra Leone and Ghana.

Currently, they are searching for a short term volunteer (4-6 months) to teach women and girls bicycle repair in Ghana. For more details on how to get involved, please visit the Village Bicycle Project website at http://villagebicycleproject.org/c6/ or Like them on Facebook (we did!): https://www.facebook.com/pages/Village-Bicycle-Project/49534869069.

A few women who have found the bike of their dreams at Bicycle Roots. From top left: Phaedra, Krista, Alexis, and Tara. Bought your bike at Bicycle Roots and want to be featured on our Facebook or blog? Just let us know and our staff photographer will schedule a session with you and your ride.

Sources:

1. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug02/hendrick/rise.html;
1a. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug02/hendrick/safety.html
1b. 3. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug02/hendrick/women.html

2. http://cycleandstyle.com/2011/01/wheels-of-change-how-women-rode-the-bicycle-to-freedom/
3. http://www.annielondonderry.com/womenWheels.html

4. http://womenshistory.about.com/od/temperance/p/frances_willard.htm

5. http://villagebicycleproject.org/c6/

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