today, a history lesson

As someone who spent a year of her life studying nothing but British art history from the latter half of the nineteenth century, I find it shocking that the phrase “bicycle suit” meant nothing to me until very recently. All those hours in the library flipping through dusty periodicals were wasted, because I never found anything like this.

It seems that bicycles were embraced both as a symbol and as an actual mode of female emancipation by feminists and suffragists in the 1890’s. Susan B. Anthony herself called the bicycle a “freedom machine.” Wide scale adoption of the bicycle by women took place after the invention of the “safety bicycle,” the first bike with a chain-drive transmission, smaller wheels, and air filled tires (replacing the “always-makes-me-giggle” penny farthing). This is probably fascinating to no one but myself, but I find the parallels to present day discussions of gender disparity amongst cyclists telling.

There’s no time like January in Boston to notice an unequal ratio of male to female cyclists, but even in the most bike-conducive weather, I’ve often noticed a lack of representation by my gender when the bikes start piling up at a red light. Apparently, women are as risk-averse today as they were 100 years ago, and just as the safety bicycle caused an explosion of women riders then, increasing practical bike infrastructure today can lead to a surge in women bikers, according to this article:

How Can You Tell If Your City is Bikeable? Hint: Count the Women

On my first critical mass ride, I wasn’t surprised to find myself vastly outnumbered. For some men, it seems, urban biking is even better when it involves rule breaking.

As a bike advocate who thinks everyone would be just a little bit happier if they took to two wheels now and then, I would of course like to see just as many women on bikes as men, but you don’t have to take my word for it (and really, why would you). Treehugger has already set forth some good reasons for women to get in the saddle.

Of course, sometimes in January it’s more fun to read about Victorian bicycle suits than to actually ride around on icy streets. Great cycling weather will be here before we know it. Let’s be ready!

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4 responses to “today, a history lesson

  1. I have heard that extensive bicycle riding can lead to impotence in men. I have not read a scientific study on this but I think about it every time I see a group of men biking!

  2. I loved the history lesson ; call me if you need a ride!

  3. Thanks for your post! I am also an art history nerd, feminist and bike lover.

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