WHEELWOMEN: THE RIDE TO LIBERATION
Bicycles - the true weapon of feminism.
“I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives her a feeling of freedom, self-reliance and independence. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm while she is on her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood…”
Suffragette, Susan B. Anthony (1898 letter to the editor of Sidepath magazine)
I. LIBERATED WHEELS
Bicycles are a constant marvel to me. I'm always thinking about how versatile and easy to use they are. It's immediate and independent and accessible. No insurance, no tax, no lessons. The bicycle is the ultimate metaphor for freedom. With so much history and storytelling potential I couldn't help incorporate it into a story i'm currently working on - Urban Creatures.
Here is what I've found out along the way.
The invention of the bicycle allowed women to break free of their homes cycling free through the city streets and roaming the country roads alike. Before the 1880s public life was largely the domain of men and it was rare for women to have any independent means of transportation. Many felt constrained by a society that imposed high moral standards and physically women were contained in painful corsets and cumbersome long, heavy petticoats.
During the 1850s, American women’s rights advocate Amelia Bloomer, adopted the “Turkish Trouser”; a trouser made with a soft fabric and gathered at the ankle, worn beneath a mid-calf length skirt. The uproar prompted the question; what else from the man’s world women would set their sights on? So great was the backlash, Amelia and her compatriots were forced to concede.
In Britain, during 1881, the Rational Dress Society was formed. They campaigned to limit the weight of petticoats to seven pounds, were the first to introduce the divided skirt and this in turn led to the second wave of the bloomer. However, it was shorter, lighter skirts and freedom from the corset that was the lasting legacy of cycling; clothing more suited to an active lifestyle.
Chaperones had been the norm for young women; kept under close supervision by their parents. Escape was made possible by the bicycle; women could go on cycling trips alone with young men for the first time.
Women were now being seen in public, moving about independently, wearing more practical clothing and being featured in advertisements for bicycles. Female bicycle racers and explorers were making headlines, taking part and succeeding in acts of derring-do. Annie Londonderry attempted to bicycle around the globe; claimed by one New York newspaper to be “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.”
A new type of women had evolved through her own experience of freedom; expectations of women’s role had irrevocably changed. Women had shown they were capable of participating in public life and drew parallels between learning to ride and learning to live. The image of the female cyclist became synonymous with the endeavour to win more rights for women.
Although the popularity of cycling was superseded by the invention of the car, the legacy of the bicycle remained; the scope of women’s lives had changed.
Today, Breeze, a campaign run by British Cycling was set up to promote women cyclists and asserts that although cycling is an increasing activity in the UK, three times more men than women ride bikes and the proportion of women cycling is on the decline.
Freewheeling is a call to wheels and geared-up to show the original spirit of the pioneering women cyclists still lives.
“Wake embarked on a marathon bike ride, cycling about 500 km in 72 hours and crossing several German checkpoints, in order to find an operator to radio Britain and request new codes.”
Female SOE Agents and the Bicycle: Liberating Nazi Occupied France
SOE was a secret organisation set-up by the British government to help the French liberate Nazi occupied France. From the summer of 1940, 40 women were recruited as Special Operative Executives for the SOE F- section.
Women were enlisted due to a shortage of eligible men. The lack of men also made women less conspicuous as they travelled freely, often seen on bicycles with large baskets looking for work or food, supporting the family while husbands were away.
Until 1944, female agents rarely carried firearms; their bicycle being their main weapon. Organised within a wider network they slipped surreptitiously into the role of courier, saboteur or radio operator. Taking advantage of societal prejudice, women deployed their feminine skills to evade scrutiny from german soldiers.
SOE agents were selected for their language skills; able to mingle with the native French population with ease, they were bright, quick-witted and brave. All of the female agents rejected the cyanide pill offered before departure for France and none were deterred by the extremely dangerous, potentially life threatening work they had been selected to do.
For those women the bicycle was a necessity to fight for freedom; for us the bicycle maintains that freedom.