Cycling suffrage: How bicycles can continue to liberate us in 2024

January 3, 2024

cycling suffrage

What would American social reformer Susan B. Anthony have said about the gender imbalance in cycling today, over a century after she famously remarked that the bicycle did “more to emancipate women than anything else in the world”?

It's highly likely the famous women's rights campaigner, who played a pivotal role in the suffrage movement, would be appalled by the bans that continue to prevent women and girls from cycling in some countries. Such bans might be rare in 2024, but research from Australia suggests barriers to cycling for women in the 21st century are near universal.

Dr Lauren Pearson from Monash University’s Sustainable Mobility and Safety Research Group noted that twice as many men cycle as women, and the reasons are depressingly familiar.

Cycling infrastructure suitable for all

The university's research noted that physical separation from motor traffic 'may support more women to ride a bike through reducing motor vehicle interactions'. The quieter roads of lockdown in 2020 helped boost the number of cycling trips by women in the UK by 50 per cent.

"It's about planning for the trips that aren't taken as well as those that are," Dr Pearson told Government News. "Women want to make local trips and we need to make sure we're building the infrastructure to support this, not just thinking about the people that are already riding, and having that gender lens on all design decisions."

According to Dr Pearson, much existing cycling infrastructure has been built with men – especially male commuters – in mind; Councils tend to build cycling infrastructure based on where the highest cycling volumes are, but this doesn’t necessarily reflect women's needs.


Cycling suffrage

Over 100 years ago in Britain and America, women learning to ride bicycles discovered freedom from the cumbersome fashions and sensibilities of the Victorian age.

When Annie Londonderry (pictured above) embarked on a circumnavigation of the globe in 1894 to settle a bet, she soon discarded the corset and heavy skirts considered acceptable sportswear at the time in favour the more liberating athletic bloomers.

The rational dress society statement of purpose reads in part: The Rational Dress society protests against the introduction of any fashion in dress that either deforms the figure, impedes the movement of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health. It protests against the wearing of tightly fitted corsets, of high-heeled or narrow toed boots and shoes; of heavily weighted skirts, as rendering healthy exercise almost impossible.

However, early adopters of bloomers faced being ridiculed and fined by authorities. And those who wished to push boundaries further still, by wearing, for example, a short skirt over their bloomers, faced physical violence - even from members of their own cycling clubs.

On 21st June 1895, the Newark Sunday Advocate ran the following article:

The Unique Cycling club of Chicago is all that its name implies. One of its laws is that on all runs bloomers and knickerbockers shall be worn, and two members who disobeyed this rule recently met with a punishment that they will not forget soon. Union park was the rendezvous for the last run, and 50 members turned out. The president, Miss Bunker, observed two women wearing short skirts over their bloomers.

“Take the skirts off,” ordered Captain Bunker.
“Indeed we won’t,” was the reply.

A crowd of 200 had collected to see the start. The president and the captain held a consultation, and then, taking several strong armed members with them, fell on the skirt wearers and stripped them down to their bloomers.

A century on, and bicycles are still liberating us all

To this day, women face abuse on the road for the clothes they choose to wear. So-called religious 'modesty laws' in Iran seek to justify bans on women cycling, while here in the UK women face obnoxious abuse whether we choose to wear Lycra, a skirt or a simple pair of jeans.

There is still much progress to be made. As Bella Bathurst puts it so well in The Bicycle Book, the bicycle has as much to offer today as it did in the nineteenth century.

“A bicycle still offers freedom, but this time from cars and queues, from oil, from rising prices and a life inside. It gives us back the landscape and makes us part of nature again. It belongs to everyone – every age, every class, every race and religion. And, most importantly of all, it’s fun. A century on, and bicycles are still liberating us all.”

The ethical choice

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