Women on Wheels -- Riding the Freedom Machine by Nancy Botkin

I've always taken bicycling to be a fact of life. As soon as I could ride, I was strongly encouraged by my parents to use my bike for transportation. Most of the women I know own bicycles (97%, I'd say), and my informal poll at work shows equal, if not greater, numbers of women commute by bike than men.

So, it came as a big shock to me to look at the official statistics of bike-commuting: the 1990 Census shows only 20% of people who bike to work are women. Recently the SFBC did a survey on Market Street during afternoon rush hour and found that still just 22% of the bike riders were women. Current SFBC membership is only 33% female. What is going on?

These low numbers are surprising considering that, historically, the invention of the bicycle was one of the most important events for women. Susan B. Anthony said that the bicycle "has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world." In the 1890's, the popularity of the inexpensive "safety" bicycle was a catalyst for change in women's lives. To ride it meant abandoning constricting corsets and cumbersome hats, experiencing the exhilaration of exercise, being able to travel independently outside the home, and leaving chaperones in the dust.

Hitch up your skirts and get out the vote!
These new freedoms were threatening to men, as can be see in cartoons, medical articles and fashion commentary. Cartoons depicted bicycling women as indistinguishable from men and their roles reversed. Medical articles warned of the possible sexual stimulation or reproductive damage to women, especially if they rode fast. "The moment speed is desired...the body is thrown forward, causing the clothing to press against the clitoris, thereby eliciting and arousing feelings hitherto unknown and unrealized by the young maiden." Even bicycle promoters condemned women who "scorched," wore bloomers, and paid no attention to beauty and fashion.

The appeal of the bicycle turned millions of women into rebels. In the 1890s, bicycle manufacturers discovered they could literally double their sales by marketing to women. Women's magazines contained images of bloomer-clad women hauling bicycles across streams, women coasting downhill with their feet up, and pages of fashions for the woman cyclist. Article after article appeared in women's magazines discussing the physical, spiritual, and societal benefits of bicycling.

"What years of eloquent preaching from the platform of women's suffrage have failed to accomplish, the necessities of this wheel have in a few months brought into practical use," wrote Mrs. Reginal de Koven from Bicycling for Women (1896).

"Riding the wheel, our own powers are revealed to us...you have conquered a new world, and exultingly you take possession of it...you become alert, active, quick-sighted, and keenly alive as well to the rights of others as to what is due yourself...to the many who wish to be actively at work in the world, the opportunity has come," wrote Maria E. Ward in Bicycling for Ladies (1896).

Is it that women no longer need the bicycle's benefits of freedom, power, and health because they have achieved complete equality with men in all these areas? Yeah, right. I asked a few other women commuters about their own personal experiences. Each of the women I spoke with helped me understand why the numbers are low today.

Sue Babuka has no other female friends who bike commute. She attributes much of this to harassment. "I'm able to let the daily ‘Hey Baby' comments roll off me, but women have varying levels of tolerance for this."

Bicycle commuter Ellen Olivia was disappointed and embarrassed as a child when she was given a pink girl's bike, not a blue racing bike like her brother's. Even when she discovered bicycling as an adult, she says, "I felt I couldn't bike to work because I had to get dressed up and that meant wearing a skirt and nylons. Men's work clothes are more suited to biking."

Although Mila Visser‘tHooft was raised in Holland (a.k.a. bike heaven), she was not taught how to fix a flat tire, as were her brothers. "Finally, they got tired of fixing them for me and showed me how to do it myself." She thinks that fewer women ride because "being a bicycle commuter is an act of defiance in the US."

Laura Salcido also has very few women friends who commute by bike. Raised in a family of 10 boys, she only felt gender bias when she was hit by a car. "I knew I couldn't tell anyone in my family because they would take the bike away from me. If one of my brothers got hit, they'd just tell him to be more careful next time."

For many women, becoming comfortable using a bike for transit did involve overcoming real obstacles, whether they were personal fears or prejudices of family or friends. For women who do ride, Susan B. Anthony's enthusiasm rings true. The benefits of biking will always outweigh the difficulties.

To learn more about how the history of the bicycle and how it contributed to women's emancipation, come to a special presentation of The Freedom Machine March 1st. See the Chain of Events for a listing of special bike events geared for women riders this month.

Other articles of interest to women bicyclists in this month's Tubular Times: