Women on Wheels

The "New Woman" and her bicycle - there will be several varieties of her / F. Opper. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The "New Woman" and her bicycle - there will be several varieties of her / F. Opper. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

By Joan Hua | Sales Associate

Bicycling in the 19th century offered women a chance to travel from place to place independently and unescorted, and the mobility enabled women to venture out of the domestic household. There were concerns raised: some argued the body position on the bicycle could be too revealing, the activity may damage reproductive health, and the bicycle saddle may even serve as “a means of gratifying unholy and bestial desires,” cited Sue Macy, author of Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle To Freedom, in her keynote that opened “FRESH TALK: Women on Wheels” on Sunday at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. 

The talk began with Macy’s historical overview of bicycling’s catalyst role in women’s dress reform and mobility, which led to freedom and empowerment. The panel discussion that followed touched on myriad aspects of women and bicycles. One of the most inspiring moments included a brief presentation by Lyne Sneige (Middle East Institute) on the National Women’s Cycling Team in Afghanistan, who has been nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize. For these Afghan women cyclists, who received accusations of immorality for their sport, social taboos about bicycling persist and remain a serious barrier.

Even when it seems that cycling women would hardly raise an eyebrow in our local society, they are frequently subject to aggression and offensive comments in the streets. And fear of their surroundings prevents many women from biking comfortably. The panel discussion highlighted a number of local bicycle organizations and programs that share the objective to develop confidence and form a supportive community. By showing a strong presence, Black Women Bike, for example, responds to the fact that black women on bicycles may still be seen by some as novel, said cofounder Najeema Washington. Lia Seremetis explained that the D.C. Bike Party’s ultimate goal is, truly, fun. Their monthly, themed gatherings, like the Pride Ride, aim to show that biking is social, lively, and exuberant. Renée Moore, who just left her role at WABA’s Women & Bicycles program to teach bicycling to youths at Bike Maryland, shared her personal stories about getting (back) into biking as an adult. Nelle Pierson from WABA talked about efforts to strengthen D.C.’s bike infrastructure. 

More than any other aspects, the practicality of biking is key in promoting a safe and friendly environment for bicyclists. For most people, the choice to bike is grounded in simple day-to-day considerations: it saves money and time, and it is built-in exercise. Bicycling especially meets the needs of many women—who juggle multiple responsibilities and commitments, who, perhaps, are also less likely to be in the position to have designated parking spots at their jobs.

I had learned about Sunday’s bicycle-themed programs from the community bulletin board at BicycleSPACE downtown. The casual format of the event—with a Sunday Supper replacing the traditional Q&A session—created excellent opportunities to get to know a local network of like-minded individuals who care about women and bicycling. Every day, when I get on my bicycle, I don’t necessarily think about activating social change—as much as I like the idea; rather, I recognize the utility of biking and see it as the most convincing piece to encourage more women to get on two wheels. Resources and guidance that offer route planning, safety tips, and accessible tools could make a lot of difference. And maybe a part of me does enjoy a taste of satisfaction by being on my saddle, watching the fleeting faces, knowing there is a chance I may have challenged someone’s expectations.

What other programs related to women and bicycles would you be interested in attending? Leave a comment and share your experiences with bicycles as tools for social change!