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International Women’s Day… and Cycling.

A very happy International Women’s Day to you all! On this most excellent day and also the centenary of the Women’s Suffrage Act being passed, we would like to share some facts on women and cycling with you to celebrate.

Did you know that the bicycle is considered instrumental to the emancipation of women? Not only did the transportation and independence it provides give immense freedom to women at the turn of the century, but it was also central to many of the campaigns run by the suffrage movements. The Cycling Scouts division, for instance, was formed in 1907 to help spread the message of suffrage wider afield to urban areas.

Thanks to the bicycle the ‘Rational Dress Society’ was formed in the 1881. Their aim was to tackle the restrictive clothing that women were expected to wear, corsets and such, that made cycling er… somewhat difficult. As a result of this society, bloomers were born, allowing for more comfortable riding for women. Saying that, it was expected that these be covered by long dresses or coats to preserve one’s dignity – a long way was still to go before lycra was to become acceptable!

Reaction to the freedom that the bike was clearly affording women was not initially positive, in fact it could be characterised as somewhat panicked. Some medics around the turn of the century warned about an ailment they termed ‘Bicycle Face’The symptoms included bulging eyes and tightened mandibles, an increased libido and higher risk of TB. All of this resulting from the “continued strain to keep the device balanced while being ridden”.

In more Fake News from the time a list of ‘Do’s and Dont’s for Women on Bicycles’ was published in 1895 in the New York World newspaper listing among other things:

Don’t be a fright.

Don’t refuse assistance up a hill.

Don’t discuss bloomers with every man you know.

Don’t go without a needle, thread and thimble.

Don’t use bicycle slang. Leave that to the boys.

Don’t appear to be up on ‘records’ and ‘record smashing’. That is sporty.

Don’t attempt a ‘century’.

This women author for one, is certainly guilty of most of those, although probably OK on the bloomers point. How far we have now come… and yet still not far enough. Women now cycle only half as much as men, and this report from Sustrans out this week investigates some of the reasons why that might be. Similarly, although so many of our cycle campaigns are headed up by awesome women, female membership levels remain low. To help, great new communities like the Women’s Cycle Forum are springing up, and here at GoBike we would also really like to try to redress this imbalance. It is my dream to reach this years AGM at the end of the summer and see many more women’s voices represented in the room than before. One thing we know is that there are loads of women (and men!) out there who want to cycle but choose not to, for so many reasons, but not least because the infrastructure is just not there to allow them to make that choice. If you are one of these people, or know others in this boat, please come and join us and help us build the voice for women and all folk ‘Who Want To But Don’t Cycle’. And remember ladies… ‘Don’t scream if you meet a cow. If she sees you first, she will run!’

I’d like to thank a wonderful group of women at the Glasgow Women’s Library for bringing a lot of this history to my attention via their annual Women’s Heritage Bike Ride. Their next one is on the 12th of May and I would highly recommend it.

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