A fond remembrance of how bicycles advanced the cause of women's lib.
A bicycle is a perfect machine: simple, elegant and efficient. It does exactly what it needs to do, whenever it needs to do it (unless, of course, its chain falls off in the middle of the pouring rain on a bridge, but that’s a story for another time). But beyond providing environmentally friendly transportation, exercise and a heartening feeling of bohemian European-ness as one pedals along, there’s a convincing case (laid out by none other than Susan B. Anthony herself!) that the bicycle advanced the cause of women’s liberation more than any other inanimate object.
According to this Mental Floss article, in the 19th century, “the Victorian lady rarely exercised or engaged in physical activity, which left her poorly conditioned.” But the appearance and popularity of the bicycle in the late 1800s changed all that. Unlike horses, which could be difficult to control (particularly when one was trammeled by the dangerously ladylike convention of riding sidesaddle), “bicycles, by comparison, were easy to manipulate. There was no reason a woman couldn’t get on a bike and sedately pedal farther from her home than she’d ever been before.”
I used to live in Holland, where bicycles are as much a part of the landscape as cars are in the States, and the sense of freedom when you are riding across a perfectly flat landscape with the wind at your back can be pretty exhilarating, physically and psychologically. But reading this, I can’t help thinking, a little sadly, of the spinning classes I walk past every day at the gym — 30 or 40 women, all in terrific shape, pedaling none too sedately … and going nowhere.
Rachel Shukert is the author of Everything is Going To Be Great and Have You No Shame. Her YA series Starstruck is forthcoming from Random House in the spring of 2013. She lives in New York City. More Rachel Shukert.
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