Biking and Feminism: “I belong on the road.”
I’ve been very fortunate that I haven’t had some of the aggressive interactions with drivers and pedestrians that others have had — mine have been limited to cat calling and the traffic incident that inspired my petulant “red dress” campaign.
A guy I know wears an American flag jersey on his distance rides, and has anecdotally reported a sharp decrease in aggressive road incidents with angry drivers. Also, I once read that one of your best safety measures on the road is to ride without a helmet, with a mess of long blonde hair trailing behind you. If that isn’t loaded symbolism, I don’t know what is.
One London lady’s commute to work got weird this week when a man got incensed at her request for him not to walk in front of her while she crossed the street — which seems wise — and he chose to chase after her and push her off of her bike into traffic. Lucky for her, it was caught on her GoPro. She submitted the video to police, and the man turned himself in after the video went viral. A friend sent along this essay about biking and feminism, written in response to this London woman’s story and the number of people cheering her attacker on social media:
The first time I cycled from my front door to the sea (a ride of about 65 miles thanks to a particularly poor map) I stood on the beach, looked out at a bending blue horizon and realised that I had reached the very edge of the country using nothing more than my thighs, sweat and gears. I felt like Tessie Reynolds, the 16-year-old girl who shocked 19th-century England by cycling from London to Brighton and back in eight hours, wearing knee-length breeches. I felt like Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst cycling around Manchester and London agitating their female comrades. I remembered the words of the American suffrage campaigner Susan B Anthony: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling: I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.”
From suffragettes to midwives, Olympians to resistance fighters, commuters to campaigners, the history of the bicycle runs like a dual carriageway alongside the history of feminism. Cycling put us in trousers, let us pass messages behind the frontline, stood us on podiums, helped us mobilise in the streets, took us out of our conscribed domestic sphere and taught us the thrill of having the wind in our eyes. Despite the warnings from AD Shadwell published in 1897, our wombs did not fall out, we did not suffer dementia and we avoided the “bulging eyes” and “tightened mandible” that characterised the dreaded (and entirely fictional) “bike face”.
And we are good cyclists. Many of those victim-blaming on Twitter were keen to point out that cyclists jump red lights, cycle on pavements or hog the road. To which I say yes, sometimes, we do. The mayor of London does, the prime minister does and probably I have too. Primarily because I don’t want to be accidentally crushed by an HGV – one of the few road casualties that disproportionately affects women, too timid to overtake on the right or pull ahead, out of a driver’s blind spot. But the urge to push a woman off her bike while calling her a mug and shouting in her face has very little, if anything, to do with road hogs and red lights.
I’m still not certain why cycling is reserved an extra-special level of hatred that other modes of transportation are not. I think many people see cyclists as a sub-culture, and perceive people with gear (even so little as a helmet) to be road warriors, and believe road warriors don’t respect the rules of the road, so why, it follows, respect a person on a bike?