Women and the Wheel

Although it’s a small step, the inexorable link between women’s rights and the use of the bicycle has forged a trajectory toward female independence throughout history

May 2, 2013 at 10:23 am

click to enlarge Women and the Wheel
Photo: Unsplash

The first feature-length film directed and shot by a female in Saudi Arabia is making its rounds on the festival circuit. Wadjda, a 2012 movie by Haifaa al-Mansour, follows a young girl living in the capital city of Riyadh who dreams of owning a green bicycle she sees everyday in a shop window. Bike riding by females is outlawed in Saudi Arabia (or was at the time the film was shot), so the girl’s mother refuses to buy her the bike, prompting her to hatch a plan of her own to purchase it.

But in April of this year, around the time Wadjda was being screened at the Gulf Film Festival in Dubai (Saudi Arabia has no movie theaters), Arabic newspaper al-Yaum announced that the religious police of Saudi Arabia had lifted the ban prohibiting women from riding bicycles and motorbikes in public. The country’s interpretation of Islam still prevents females from driving cars, but they’re now allowed to cycle in designated areas, such as parks — not as a mode of transportation or in a competitive capacity — and only if they’re accompanied by a male and dressed in their full-body abaya.

Although it’s a small step, the inexorable link between women’s rights and the use of the bicycle has forged a trajectory toward female independence throughout history, and seeing the cultural implications and results of female bicycle use in Saudi Arabia will be incredibly interesting — and perhaps mimic how bicycles affected the suffragist movement here at home.

When bicycles first hit the scene in America in the late 1800s, the end cusp of the Victorian Era, there was grave concern regarding how the contraptions would affect the morality and physical constitution of women. An American Journal of Obstetrics article from the 1890s threatened pressure from a bicycle seat would deform a growing girl’s pelvis, adversely affecting childbearing abilities. And women were strongly encouraged, even by doctors who thought bicycles were “safe,” not to ride during their period, while pregnant or for three months after giving birth, and never to race. 

There was also concern that along with injuring reproductive organs, cycling would lead directly to loose morals. Charlotte Smith, paradoxically an advocate for working women, wrote in 1896, “The bicycle is the devil’s advance agent morally and physically in thousands of instances.” 

There were even reports that riding a bike led to “friction and heating of the parts where it is very undesirable and may lead to dangerous practices” in women. The undesirable parts included the “pudendal region,” which innervates the clitoris and ischiocavernosus muscle used during orgasm. Doctors and moralists were afraid riding bicycles would turn women into sex-crazed masturbators, so bikes with dropped seats were constructed to alleviate the concern.

But bizarre frame construction and public mistrust weren’t the only things female cyclists in the 19th century had to overcome to ride. They also had to battle their restrictive clothing. In an 1891 issue of the journal Sporting Life, one woman recalled a harrowing accident where her cumbersome dress wound around her pedal crank, knocking her under her bike. 

But getting rid of corsets, floor-length petticoats and 25-pound dresses in exchange for functional clothing wasn’t easy. It started with the fear that bifurcated garments — those split in two, such a bloomers or knickerbockers — would lead women to act like men. In a New York Times editorial in 1852, a man wrote, “These ladies assert their claim to rights, which we of bifurcated raiment are charged with usurping. They design to evict us. They will enter per force … and strip us of our present monopoly.”

Feminist reformers, such as Susan B. Anthony, realized the true meaning of women controlling their dress while cycling. “The stand [woman] is taking in the matter of dress is no small indication that she has realized that she has an equal right with a man to control her own movements.” 

And in that tune, the 1880s Rational Dress Society, although in England, had a huge effect on freedom and fashion. Rallying for more reasonable clothing — such as undergarments that weighed less than seven pounds — they protested against “any fashion in dress that either deforms the figure, impedes the movements of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health.”

Female cyclists and females in general still risked ridicule and public humiliation for daring to wear pants, even beneath their skirts. But the spirit of cycling carried women into the next century with the ability to travel independently, begin to dress for themselves, exercise and develop a life outside of the home.

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world,” said Anthony in 1896. Let’s hope it continues to have that effect for women around the world.

CONTACT MAIJA ZUMMO: [email protected]