“To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.” ~ Munsey’s Magazine, 1896
Being the most equitable of all forms of transport, it is of little surprise that the bicycle has come to represent ideas of freedom and equality. This wasn’t always the case: up until the 1880’s, the first bicycles were deemed too dangerous to be used by women.
It was only with the introduction of the “safety bicycle” that women were allowed to ride. At first, most female cyclists were from middle-class backgrounds but as prices decreased in the 1890s, bicycles became affordable for working class women.
Safe to say, this caused much controversy. Women’s riding styles, the clothes they wore, and whether they should cycle at all, was highly debated by the press and establishment. Despite the uproar, it did little in the way of discouraging women to take up cycling. The bicycle quickly became a tool of independence that literally freed women and broke down class inequalities:
“By bicycling, women who have for years been restricted to a neighbourhood of a radius from two to three miles can now extend this area to a radius of eight to ten miles, and have an opportunity of seeing the country when living in town. Bicycling has thus placed poor women on an equal footing with rich ones in a most important particular- getting fresh air and exercise and seeing new scenery. Bicycling will add to a new interest to life, and bring God’s lovely earth to the doors of thousands of women in poor circumstances who would otherwise see nothing but streets and squalor each day.” Major-General Harcourt Bengough, C.B
By breaking down gender stereotypes and providing independence of movement and organisation, it is of little surprise that the bicycle played a key role in suffragette movement.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the bike had served its purpose for gender equality. Shockingly, it wasn’t until 1984 that women were allowed to take part in Olympic road races and it was only at the London 2012 Olympics that women and men competed in the same number of events in all cycling disciplines. This only goes to show how the bicycle continues to be a tool for social change.
Fast-forward to the present day and you can see how the humble bicycle continues to empower women across the world. For many of the women who use our bikes, a bicycle facilitates access to social services, income-generating opportunities and community activities that would have never been possible without affordable transport.
At Re~Cycle we recognise that bikes still have an incredibly important role to play. In countries across Africa, some women are still excluded from riding bicycles for cultural reasons. We believe that teaching young girls and women to ride bikes will continue to change these attitudes and can help level the playing field for future generations to come.
Please help us to support more women this International Women's Day: