Bicycles, Women’s Rights, and Symbols We Shouldn’t Forget

Bicycles, Women’s Rights, and Symbols We Shouldn’t Forget

2016 has been tumultuous, to say the least, and there is a palpable sense of uncertainty and fear hanging in the air. By now, from your friends or from passers-by, you have probably heard worried questions asked in hushed tones: “Will my marriage still count, in a year?” “Will Roe v. Wade be overturned?” “Is it safe for me to dress this way?” “Will my transgender child be safe at school?” “Will my underprivileged neighborhood have to weather an increasingly militarized police presence?” “What’s going to happen to my healthcare?”

All of these are questions worth asking, and there simply aren’t any answers yet. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we can say that now, more than any other time in the twenty first century, it’s important that we not lose sight of how far we’ve come in the fight for equal rights and civil liberty.

To that end, we’d like to talk about a little known symbol that is representative to women’s rights: the bicycle. Few know the details about how and why it became a symbol for women’s rights and the suffragist movement more than a hundred years ago, and what those experiences can mean for us today.

Did you know that In the nineteenth century, women riding bicycles caused a tremendous social panic? Conventional wisdom held that women were too frail, with too sensitive constitutions for that sort of activity. Doctors were quick to tell women that riding a bicycle posed serious dangers to their reproductive health. Women who rode bikes were warned about “bicycle face”— a tired, haggard visage that would ward off potential suitors. As with witchcraft scares, riding bicycles was said to lead women to lesbianism and to rob them of their capacity for good morals.

Obviously this was nonsense (actually, bike riding can have a significantly greater impact on men’s reproductive health) but some of the other objections and derisions make the root cause more clear.

Women who rode bicycles out of the city center would be avoiding courtship, women with bicycles had the means to leave their households unescorted and to, quite literally, “head out to the highway”, escaping male control. Women riding bicycles were a clear, direct, and unprecedented threat to the established social order. The systemic culture of oppression was losing its grip, so it tried to reassert itself: If women were leaving the city unescorted, it was suggested that they might not thrive if they shirked male control. When women started wearing bloomers for the first time in centuries, cartoonists had a field day lampooning them to mask their intimidation at the idea of women wearing less oppressive, less constrictive, more practical attire.

So, the bicycle became a symbol to rally behind, standing for freedom and empowerment, mobility and self-determination, and a rejection of the systematized culture of oppression under which women had been living. As early as 1869, Edith Shuler demonstrated the bicycle for curious onlookers. Another Wisconsinite, Frances Willard, published a book in 1893 about learning to cycle in her fifties, in which she made frequent connections between mastering the art of cycling, thereby earning mobility, and mastering her own life, and women’s lives in general. Alice Hawkins, a prominent suffragist, was reported in 1902 for “public indecency” for wearing bloomers and cycling around Leicester. In 1896, Munsey’s Magazine called the bicycle “the steed upon which [women] rode into a new world,” and Susan B. Anthony is often quoted as saying that the bicycle “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

So, an oppressed, marginalized group earned freedom rallying behind a symbol of mobility, self-determination, and strength, and we can’t help but draw parallels between that struggle for basic civil rights and the emerging struggles that our country has begun to push back against.

This country is segregating bathrooms to marginalize transgendered persons, manipulating housing practices to effectively segregate schools by class or race, using budget cuts and Kafkaesque legislation to restrict access to abortions, and tacitly supporting a dozen other subtle oppressions. The fight for basic civil rights is far from over, and future generations will judge us based on how we rise to the challenge.

This post has been a little more political than our usual fare, but it’s a subject that’s close to our hearts and we felt that it was important that we contribute to the conversation.

Colibri Digital Marketing is a woman-owned, LGBT-friendly business based in San Francisco, a notoriously welcoming, progressive, forward-thinking city. We work with clients that share our values. This post, for instance, was inspired by Bay Area Bicycle Law. A law firm that focuses exclusively on bicycle accidents and bicycle law, with an interest in traffic legislation, may seem an odd segue, but, to us, the connection is clear.

As a forward-thinking, environmentally friendly law firm, they’re working to bring about change by fighting lots of little battles, raising awareness of an issue, and working to better our city. As digital marketers, we use our talents to work with clients who work towards these sorts of goals in their own way.

A hundred years ago, a bicycle was a symbol for social progress and liberation. Today, it’s an icon of progressive, local, civic responsibility, and personal independence, exactly the sorts of values our society will depend on as we forge ahead, righting wrongs and answering the difficult questions our generation finds itself faced with.

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