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Riding for Your Rights!

By Adam Marsal/Brian Fleming

Until the late 1880s, cycling was essentially a pastime for affluent, urban men. But with improvements in safety, steering, comfort and speed in the 1890s, the bicycle craze took off with women, who started to see it as a mechanism for personal freedom and self-reliance. As Susan B. Anthony said in 1896, the bicycle “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

Cycling Bad For a Woman’s Health

From the start, women faced strong opposition from men. For one, women were considered too delicate and fragile for anything other than household chores. They were also expected to be paragons of Victorian virtue, wearing confining steel corsets and long, voluminous skirts that left no skin exposed and ensured that women didn’t entice men with their sexuality. In fact, critics of the time feared that bike riding – God forbid! – might be sexually stimulating for women, while others claimed that women were too frail and that cycling was harmful to a woman’s health, in particular her reproductive system.

The vilification of women on bikes was so extreme, in fact, that women riders were often verbally and physically assaulted, and even, in the case of Emma Eades – purportedly one of the first women to ride a bike in London – attacked with bricks and stones as men and women alike yelled at her to go home where she belonged. Despite this horrid antipathy, however, women continued to ride.

Bikes and Bloomers

Things began to change with the introduction of bloomers – a pair of baggy, ankle-length pantaloons first worn by Amelia Bloomer that were initially criticized by both men and women for being scandalous and unladylike.

With the bicycle, however, bloomers found their purpose, especially when Annie Kopchovsky (aka Annie Londonderry; she changed her name to hide the fact that she was Jewish) accepted a wager from two wealthy businessmen to ride around the world in 15 months while also earning $5,000 along the way. Although she left her native Boston wearing a traditional blouse, jacket and long skirt, she switched to bloomers when she got to Chicago, and went so far as to wear a man’s riding suit for the rest of the trip.

New Women

Annie’s trip was an historic moment as much of the US and Europe followed her journey. The fact that Annie had a natural talent for storytelling and what today we call PR only increased her impact. By pushing the boundaries of what the world thought women were capable of, Annie’s achievement did everything from reform women’s clothing to advance the suffrage movement.

At the same time, the increase in women on bicycles dovetailed with the New Woman movement, which was comprised of free-spirited, educated and economically independent women who rode bicycles and rejoiced in their independence as they pushed against the patriarchal status quo.

Past and Present

It should be remembered, however, that while the sentiments of over a century ago seem asinine to us, similar ideas still hold sway in some places to this very day. For example in Yemen, where women on bikes still attract derision because many believe it’s immodest or shows too much of a woman’s body. In response to this climate, Yemeni women’s cycling activist Bushra Al-Fusail recently created the Facebook group, “Let’s ride a bike” and convinced some of friends to join her on a women-only bike ride across the city, the first of its kind in Yemen.

Yemen, Photo: Bushra Al-Fusail

“It is totally unfair that men can move easily by using their bicycles when women are expected to stay home,” Fusail posted on the group’s page. “No more fuel means that we can’t go to work, that we are unable to provide and help our families. Join us!”

“This Can’t Be Real”

In the end, twenty women joined in the one-and-a-half hour ride through Sanaa, with pictures of the ride going viral online, where they attracted some anger. One Yemeni man commented, “This can’t be real, these images were photoshopped,” while another commented, “Those are not women, they are men dressed as women.”

Yemen, Photo: Bushra Al-Fusail

However, Fusail said many onlookers reacted positively. “I thought that people would come and laugh at us or try to prevent us from cycling, but this did not happen at all, instead there were some people who tried to encourage us, and this motivated us to continue.” She went on to say, “People need to change the way they think… They need to stop thinking of women as sexual objects, only then will they stop seeing everything they do as sexual.”

Yemen, Photo: Bushra Al-Fusail

If these words sound familiar it’s because, like Emma Eades, Amelia Bloomer and Annie Londonderry before her, Fusail is using the bicycle as a mechanism for social change, fighting for equality, and riding towards a liberated future on two wheels.