(Bi)cyclical Women  

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The bicycles we so often see in our everyday lives can truly claim that they were a major part of human evolution but that they don’t get any credit for it.

The sheer number and ease of availability of bicycles in today’s world means that any people have never bothered to think about the roots of the bicycle. I guess we just reckon that they have been around since the beginning of time, like the ones in the Flintstones!

Not to disappoint you, but the earliest record two-wheeled human –powered vehicle was the Draisienne, made by Baron Karl von Drais, a German man who travelled to Paris in 1818 to present his latest invention. Except that you didn’t pedal at all – you just pushed it along as if the chain had come off, and you could not get it back on.

For the next 67 odd years, the design was dallied and toyed with until the very first model that resembled anything we would use today was released by Starley in Coventry, England. It was the 1885 Rover, and from then on only minor adjustments have been added to turn it into the bicycle you now have in your garage.

But you must be wondering just how bicycles relate to women’s rights, correct?

Well, the truth is, the bicycle is one of the main causes of female emancipation in Western countries, although almost nobody knows or cares about that fact. Most people just assume that the launch of the safety bicycle (the one we use today) simply coincided with the beginnings of feminist suffragist movements. In fact, they were one of the main reasons behind the movements.

Prior to the invention of the safety bicycle, a lot of the high-wheeled models in circulation were quite dangerous and resulted in many crashes (I’m puzzled too), thus gaining notoriety as an adrenaline-rush for young, excitable hooligans. In fact, there were many places where they were greeted with the same scepticism and raised eyebrows that modern parents offer customized sports cars.

But with the advent of the safety bicycle, it became clear that anybody could ride on and get around safely. In fact, it would reduce the amount of time it took to get things done, because you wouldn’t be walking anymore, and you wouldn’t be at risk of getting hurt by the high-wheelers. And that’s when women decided that they wanted to share in the fun too!

Despite incredible outrage and gasps of shock and millions of silly curses being thrown at them, women decided that they too would ride bicycles, and the public act of defiance against the norms emboldened many women to start demanding more rights. First, the right to ride bicycles. Then, the right to alter their traditional attire because it impeded the act of riding. Then, watching themselves come very close to emancipation, women surged once again in demand for voting rights. They explained to men (and conservative women) at the time that in increments, they had dispelled many of the myths of before; so how many more current truths were myths?

And the sound logic of the argument gave them a basis for rallies and campaigns advocating women’s suffrage. If women could ride bikes and wear trousers, could women not work? Could they not vote? Were they not equal?

Susan B. Anthony claimed that no single object in history had ever done more for women than the bicycle. In her own words, “I think it [bicycling] 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”. That was a statement in 1896, and it did prove to be true. By allowing women to ride bicycles (although it was hardly a gift – women campaigned for it), men had surrendered only a little bit of their traditional rights, and it eventually led to the much more open society we see today.

It is true that the bicycle didn’t exclusively give women equal rights as if it were a super-powered object that fought for women’s rights at night and lay inanimate by day.

What it did do, however, is give women of all classes a rallying point by which to unite – a common ground for them to argue. Whilst rich women might’ve wanted the right to own a yacht and poor women the right not to be slaves, every woman wanted to ride the bicycle. Why should men have had to be the only ones to benefit from such a futuristic invention? It was simply unfair, and it roused many women across many different classes to unite and rally for women’s rights.

Female suffragists who had had no backing prior to the invention of the safety bicycles were emboldened by the social awakening they had long advocated but never witnessed, and they re-doubled their efforts. The “Freedom Machine” was here to drive women into a better future, and that future was right then!

So ladies, next time you’re on your bicycle, it would be nice for you to think about how your history is so intertwined with it, and make sure you don’t crash it!



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