Many years ago when I told a relative I wanted to be a social worker her response was “Why would you want to do that? They’re all feminists!” Interesting, I thought. What would be so bad about that? I didn’t know much about feminism back then so it wasn’t surprising that I began to think that maybe she was right – maybe there actually WOULD be something quite bad about that. Images began to fill my mind of angry screaming women telling me I was letting down the feminist movement by cooking dinner for my boyfriend. Luckily I investigated this some more and after quashing the she-devil nightmares I realised that I was actually a feminist myself and had been for quite some time. To me this simply means that I’m a woman who believes that women are just as valuable and worthy of respect as men and should have access to equal opportunities and recognition in the kind of world that works just as well (or as badly) for women as it does for men.
So now that we’ve established that I actually AM a feminist, and a particularly un-scary one, what I really want to talk about is bikes. Why? Because when I go home at night I don’t spend endless hours on blogs and websites about women’s rights and feminism (apart from feminaust of course!) Instead, I trawl the internet looking for my dream bike and map out routes for weekend bike rides, comment on numerous bike forums (especially those that focus on women’s riding) and spread my bike love all over facebook. When I think about what bike riding means to me, I think about independence, strength, freedom and courage – all things that I think women possess (or should possess) and express in a multitude of ways. This is what Susan B Anthony, an American feminist civil rights leader in the 19th century, had to say about women’s cycling:
“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood”.
Say no more! Not only was the bicycle a means for women to gain more independence and freedom, it also paved the way for an uprising in terms of the restrictive and cumbersome clothing that women were expected to wear during this era.
Despite this early revolution and the more recent increase in riding due to health, financial, and environmental benefits, and of course let’s not forget fashion <insert brightly coloured fixie and super tight jeans here>, women are still under-represented in most forms of biking, be it commuting, mountain biking, recreational riding or (especially) road riding. Most of the riding I do occurs in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, and passing a sister cyclist on my way to work is still a relatively uncommon surprise that brings a smile to my dial, even if it doesn’t quite make me “stand and rejoice” as it did for Susan B Anthony. It also makes me wonder what it is about our society that says that bike riding is STILL more a man’s activity, and whether it’s just another thing to add to the list of activities that women aren’t encouraged or enabled to do in the same way that men are. Given that the women’s bicycle revolution started in the 1890s, you’d think things would be significantly different by now. I rarely talk to men who tell me how they would like to ride a bike but don’t – if they want to then they’re usually already doing it. However I often find myself talking about riding to women who, for some reason or another, feel the urge but keep coming up against barriers.
I heard a story not too long ago about a school in Melbourne that wanted to run a bike education program for their students where, because of religious reasons, the boys would ride the bikes but the girls would only be allowed to do the bike maintenance. A group of girls lobbied the principal because they really, really, REALLY wanted to ride. I never found out what happened next, but I like to think the girls won their right to do just what the boys were doing. In Western culture we’re not shocked by seeing women on bikes even if we’re still often outnumbered, but I wonder if women riding bikes in other cultures has the potential to be the same kind of liberating force as it was for American women in the 19th century.
My vision of women and bikes in Australia is that the combination has the potential to be a powerful agent for feminist social change and activism as it has been in other countries such as the USA. One example of that within Australia is Otesha: Cycling for Sustainability. Otesha is an organisation that organises a group of volunteers each year to ride their bikes around a part of Australia, stopping along the way to perform to secondary school students. These performances spread messages of how consumerism is damaging our environment and therefore our society, and engages young people in making changes to how they impact upon the world. This is an important message not only for the protection of future generations but because environmental issues are women’s issues. A lack of action on climate change is an issue that is going to have a disproportionate effect on those in poverty, 70% of whom are women. From my limited understanding of Otesha, it appears to be predominantly run by young women and the majority of the volunteers each year are also young women. What better way to promote cycling and sustainability to girls than for them to see a group of young mostly women trekking through the countryside on two wheels sharing their stories, strengths, and skills?
Bike feminism seems to be on the rise in Australia, with collectives such as Candy Cranks and Sugar Spokes, events such as Pony Bikes’ All Girl Alley Cat and, I’m sure, numerous others that I’m unaware of. As a feminist cyclist, (and almost-social-worker-despite-the-best-efforts-of-afore-mentioned-relative), I’m excited that women are again beginning to take hold of the bike as a symbol of liberation, activism, equality, and femininity. On yer bikes ladies!
Tori was a 10 year old author (unpublished), a 16 year old biomedical scientist (unqualified), a 22 year old musician (unemployed), a 25 year old candle maker (unbelievably employed) and is now a 28 year old youth worker. She loves bike riding, dislikes eating animals and making pollution, wants the world to be different in a really good way, and is sure that this change will have a lot to do with the strengths of women.