Why a woman can't ride a bike

The bicycle as a means of emancipation

Women who pedal with enthusiasm in city traffic, bring the kids to daycare on an e-bike in a trailer or go on a mountain bike tour of the Alps: today - at least in western countries - completely normal. But this has not always been the case. In the late 19th century, women on bicycles were seen as a brazen provocation against the established social order.

However, that did not stop her from swinging boldly on the saddle. They used it as an expression of their freedom and independence and, as a result, as a means of emancipation. Wheels especially for women have played a role at Diamant right from the start. Our topaz has been around since 1912. It still accompanies great women. Many more models have been added over the years.

In our blog we tell you what role the bicycle played in the emancipation of women and how current the status quo of women cyclists is around the world.

Table of Contents

The evolution of the bicycle movement and how women conquered the saddle

In 1818 Carl Friedrich von Drais invented the first version of the bicycle with the so-called “walking machine”. The way the running bike worked was that the user set it in motion by pushing their feet off the ground alternately. As the first mechanized and individual means of transport that managed without the drive of animals, it marked a breakthrough in the pre-industrial society of Europe. With the introduction of the faster, easy-to-control safety low wheel with chain drive, the bicycle experienced a real boom from the mid-1880s. From this point on, modern bicycle traffic existed. However, in those years the bike was still a huge investment: at the end of the 19th century, cycling was only affordable for middle-class social classes.

At around the same time, women in Western Europe were barely recognized as self-employed. They did not have an equal position in society and were often dependent on their husband or family. Many men refused to allow women to actively interfere in business and politics. These were active in public, while the sphere of activity of women was limited to the private sphere of the family and the household.

After the bicycle had been a male domain for a long time, more women discovered cycling for themselves. In doing so, they were encouraged to break away from traditional gender roles and question the limits of their freedom. Accordingly, the bicycle became a symbol of a woman becoming more independent, standing up for her rights and emancipating herself. This new mobility also made it easier to access education and jobs, as well as political activism. For example, it was the same women who confidently jumped on their bikes who also demanded the right to vote for this group of people.

After Amalie Rother from Berlin started cycling around 1890, she founded the first Berlin women's cycling club. When they were accepted into the German Cycling Association, they were regarded as equal comrades. In 1893, the Graz Women's Bicycle Club, the first women's cycling club, was launched. The ladies of the club covered a large number of kilometers on the bike as part of various trips.

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the bicycle gradually became cheaper as series production prevailed and there were several manufacturers. For women from the working class, at least one used bike was now affordable.

Critical voices against the cycling woman

At the time, there was social consensus to admire men on high bikes while women cyclists were mocked. This is in an interesting contrast to the early bicycle advertising, which at the turn of the 20th century liked to showcase the bicycle with athletic-looking female riders in victory poses.

Cycling women attracted some resistance. For example, many men were of the opinion that women should not overexert themselves while cycling, as this would damage their constitution. And anyway, male protection would be necessary in any situation.

There were even pseudoscientific papers to make women feel less likely to ride and to strengthen the prevailing opinion that they had no business being on the bike. These revealed alleged negative effects of cycling on fertility. At the same time, they claimed that women used the bicycle saddle for sexual stimulation and that, as a result, female chastity was in danger. This culminated in verbal atrocities that led many of the women cycling to wonder whether the bike would outweigh the verbal atrocities they were exposed to. But at the same time the public hostility ensured that they developed an identity as self-confident cyclists.

It was also at this time that the emancipation of women gained in importance. So it was that the discovery of the bicycle for women coincided with the story of female emancipation, as Dr. Grudrun Maierhof, professor of methodological competence and the history of social work at the Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences and co-author of the book “You cycle like a man, Madame”, summarized it.

Participation of women in cycling races

One of the first cycling races took place in Bordeaux in 1868. There were already some women among the participants here. Since the popular opinion was that classic athletic attributes were more likely to be attributed to men, the audience mocked the participants in the cycling races. The physical exertion would not suit the feminine nature.

In contrast to Belgium and France, the participation of women in cycling races was rather the exception in Germany in the 1890s. The first all-women race in Germany was held in Machern near Leipzig on three-wheelers in 1890. In 1893 there was the first official race for women on low bikes in Berlin on the Halensee cycling track.

One of the eight starters, Amalie Rother from Berlin, wrote: “We old Berlin racing drivers knew exactly what we were doing when we stepped out onto the track in 1893. We did not want to present our charms to the audience, which is a bit purring impertinence for mothers of growing daughters, nor to enrich ourselves with the prices, but rather we wanted to show the audience that we were masters of our machines and call out to the ladies: Here, take a look and do it follow us! We succeeded in both. "

The suffragette movement

Suffragettes were the more or less organized women's rights activists who campaigned for universal suffrage for women in Great Britain and the United States between 1903 and 1928. This took place in the most varied of forms: starting with passive resistance, disrupting official events, and ending with hunger strikes. Mainly women from the middle class were active here.

The English press originally coined the term suffragette to demean the suffrage activists. However, this was ultimately taken over by the women's movements themselves. In the aftermath of the movement, the term was used again disparagingly for committed women's rights activists, similar to the term Emanze today.

As part of their efforts to secure women's suffrage, the suffragette movement used the bicycle and thus once again acted as a means of emancipation.

The end of the compulsory skirt

Cycling on the running machine was a difficult matter for women due to the dress code of the time. With their floor-length dresses, it was almost impossible to cycle elegantly without revealing ankles or legs. There was also the risk of getting tangled in the walking machine with the long clothes.

With the invention of the curved bar in 1885, the bicycle finally became rock-conform. Even so, the hem of the dress kept sliding up.

Ultimately, it was the bicycle that put an end to the oppressive mechanisms of the Victorian dress code. Hoop skirts and whalebone corsets gave way to buttoned trousers, so-called bloomers, named after the American advocate for women's rights, Amelia Bloomer. As a side effect of cycling, as it were, women were given unparalleled freedom of movement.

However, large parts of the population feared that this would only be the first step and that the women might soon actually "have their pants on"!

The American suffragette Susan B. Anthony wrote in 1896: “I think the bicycle has done more to emancipate women than anything in the world. I am happy every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a sense of self-reliance and independence the moment she does it. "

Cycling pioneers

There are a number of women who made bicycle history and paved the way to where we are today. We introduce you to some heroic cyclists.

Alice Hawkins

A hundred years ago, Alice Hawkins (1863-1946), a suffragette, rode a bike in pants through Leicester promoting the women's rights movement. In doing so, she called for the rigid division of roles to be lifted and the bicycle established as a symbol for the emancipation of women.

Amelia Bloomer

When Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894) started wearing long pants that tied at the ankles in 1851, she probably knew that a few people would turn up their noses. But she certainly had no idea that she was going to give her name to the revolutionary piece of clothing she wore. By wearing the trousers, she set an example and insisted that in future more mobility, functionality and comfort should be the focus of the design. This was particularly important in the context of the emerging bicycle boom.

Beryl Burton

Beryl Burton (1937-1996) has secured a place in the elite of cycling history with dozens of championship titles and national records. At the height of her career, Burton even managed to beat male competitors. In 1967 she set a twelve-hour record that no man broke for two years.

Eileen Gray

During the Second World War, Eileen Gray (1920-2015) introduced the two-wheeler as a means of transport in what is now the bicycle city of Copenhagen, so that she could work as an engineer over rubble. Despite the dangerous conditions in which she got to know cycling, it quickly became a passion of hers. After the war, she was one of the three women who made up the first international women's team.

They campaigned for the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale, International Cycling Federation) to ensure that the women's records were recognized and that the race was made possible for them. In addition, Gray became President of the British Cycling Federation and was also deputy commander of various British Olympic teams.

Maria Ward

Maria Ward was way ahead of her time. Her book "Bicycling for Ladies", published in 1896, was a comprehensive guide to cycling. What is remarkable about this book is that it did not shorten the mechanical details. Ward said her goal is to teach female cyclists the laws of mechanics and physiology. She explained this in the introduction to the chapter on “Women and Tools” as follows: “I believe that any woman who can use a needle or a pair of scissors can use other tools as well. It is very important for a cyclist to be familiar with all parts of the bicycle, their use and their adjustment. Many a tired hour would be saved if you gave your machine a little attention at the right time. "

Annie Londonderry

The bike inspired independence and self-confidence in public. An example of this is the American Annie Londonderry (1870 / 71-1947), who between 1894 and 1895 covered thousands of kilometers on her bicycle saddle on her world tour. In doing so, she demonstrated determination, courage, and perseverance - qualities not normally associated with women.

Cycling women: where there is still a need for action today

Nowadays we take it for granted that girls and women get on a ladies bike every day and cycle to work or school. However, there are still many countries that have not yet achieved the liberation that women in the western world achieved more than a hundred years ago.

For example, in Saudi Arabia women are prohibited from using bicycles as a means of transport. In fact, it goes so far that they are not allowed to move at all without the company of a man. In Iran, too, women were banned from riding bicycles in public by decree. Many courageous women dare to resist there. Under the hashtag #IranianWomenLoveCycling, thousands of pictures of self-confident Iranian women on bicycles were posted both at home and abroad. This shows that they do not want to be deprived of their freedom.

Other countries allow cycling for women, but as in Europe 120 years ago it is socially frowned upon. Nevertheless, some do it and in this way advocate self-determined mobility in public and break with manifested norms. In addition, women around the world continue to use bicycles as a means of protesting against misogynist societies and promoting equality for both sexes. In Afghanistan, for example, a group of women set up their own cycling team in 2011 to establish women cycling as the norm in society. And in Egypt and Turkey, women cycling are gathering to combat harassment, discrimination and intimidation and to revolutionize female self-perception.

Another example is “Mujeres Bici-bles” from Colombia. The network protests against car traffic, road nuisance and unsafe and inadequate infrastructure. There are now various offshoots of the network in Spanish-speaking countries. Incidentally, World Bicycle Day on June 3rd also pursues partially similar goals.

In the western world it can be said that the more the focus is on the car, the more patriarchal the underlying concepts are. This goes back to the reconstruction and the associated urban planning of the post-war period. With their large housing estates and housing estates in the suburbs, the cities were completely geared towards the automobile. The model of the single breadwinner family, which was common at the time, restricted the independent mobility of women to their own settlement. In this way, urban development consolidated the traditional role model. The result: Even today, many women still feel unsafe on their bikes or on the streets. In order for everyone to feel comfortable on their bikes in road traffic, urban planning must take into account the various life situations and needs from different perspectives.

On the positive side, activists are trying to break through these structures. You are working towards a bike-friendly city with no inequalities. For example, in political associations such as the bicycle referendum, there are separate women's groups which, among other things, deal with the question of why the proportion of women among the active population is only around a third.

Conclusion: cycling as a means of emancipating women

Originally conceived for men, the bicycle is an important means of emancipating women. At the turn of the 20th century, it was used to question the separation of private and public, the prevailing dress code and the common image of masculinity. In the past, riding a bike was considered heroic. The fact that women also cycled without difficulty cast doubt on this ideal. And finally, the establishment of women's cycling clubs contributed to self-organization and the creation of protected spaces. In just a short time, the bicycle became the mode of transport of choice for women: it gave them independence and, as a result, it became a symbol of emancipation.

Traffic and urban planning is still a real male domain today. In order for women to feel safe in traffic, a rethink needs to take place in this regard.

So: get on your bike! Draws attention to the fact that you too are part of the traffic. Like the generations before you, fight for your rights and ensure that traffic planning becomes more feminine.

Further information on the bicycle as a means of emancipation

January 13, 2020

Diamant editorial team