“Let me tell you what I think of the bicycle. It has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a sense of freedom and self-confidence. I appreciate every time I see a woman cycling... an image of freedom”. Susan Anthony, one of the most important American suffragette leaders, said this at the beginning of the 20th century, praising the libertarian power represented by women and their bicycles at the time.
More than a century later, the image of flowing hair and the graceful rhythmic movement of pedaling still brings out the feelings of freedom and independence in the – still timid – conquest of public space by women. In this context, the importance of the bicycle in exploring the city is clear, and therefore, one more reason to celebrate and encourage its use, especially on World Bicycle Day, celebrated on June 3rd.
The history of this two-wheeled modal began with the velocipedes, antecedents of bicycles as we know them today, which appeared in 1863, becoming a leisure option only for the wealthier population. Between adjustments and adaptations, these equipment soon began to be incorporated into the sport, encouraging races and championships, thus reaching different social strata. Women, however, had the role of spectators, since their participation in sporting events of this kind was vetoed. It was, therefore, in the use of the bicycle as a leisure activity that women could bond, but it forced some structural changes.
The first one was directly related to clothing. There are studies indicating that the advent of the bicycle had a lot to do with the change in clothes worn by women in the late 19th century. It was impossible to cycle using the countless layers of skirts and tight corsets, so, little by little, cycling began to dictate fashion, popularizing the use of tighter and shorter clothes that allowed greater mobility, such as bloomers (Turkish pants with ties at the ankles worn underneath the skirts). This change, like the others that followed, was not well received, as many considered the new robes inappropriate and ugly for a lady.
Beyond the change in clothing, the paradigm shift related to the presence of women cycling in public spaces was a key issue that faced (and still faces) a lot of resistance. Relying on dubious clinical studies, it was even argued that the bicycle could cause infertility in women, increasing the chances of abortion, that is, denying women the “fulfillment of their social role”.
Despite all the “contraindications”, women insisted on the use of bicycles and their practice came to represent an even more important structural change. If before they were seen as fragile, apathetic, isolated in their homes, cycling on the streets eliminated these stigmas and new habits emerged, such as health care and hygiene. During this period, it is important to highlight the role of the suffragette movement which, in addition to Susan Anthony mentioned above, had as an important exponent the activist Frances E. Willard who published in 1895 the book Wheel Within a Wheel narrating how she learned to ride a bicycle at 53 years old and demonstrating, through her personal experience, how the bicycle gave her back the freedom to move that she had felt only when she was a child. Without depending on the consent and help of men, with the bicycle, women would get where they wanted, reaching longer distances and conquering autonomy.
The use of the bicycle represented, therefore, a reconciliation with this primary freedom in a society in which women were (and still are) little encouraged to use their body capacity, conditioned most of the times to sedentary and cloistered play. In this sense, the bicycle is a key piece to break this body shyness and assume the occupation of public space in a more egalitarian way.
Nowadays, there is a lot of discussion about the great potential that the bicycle represents as a vehicle powered by human propulsion, with a compatible speed to experience the city, the people on the sidewalks, the façades of shops, etc. In this logic, the bicycle allows structural changes in women's daily lives, allowing greater ranges of reach, other destinations, economy and exercise. It is a fact that there is still a long way to go so that the occupation of public space takes place in a more egalitarian way, as well as the conditions for the use of bicycles in cities still lack a lot of encouragement and awareness. However, it is fundamental to praise and encourage the use of this modal that has done (and still does) a lot for the empowerment of women.