The bicycle as a vehicle of change? Who knew?

Published on June 6, 2014

If the bicycle emancipated women, then why are 2 out of 3 Nova Scotian cyclists male? This question has been the focus of much of the sociological research I have carried out in the past 10 years. Currently I am finishing up a PhD dissertation that is examining the gender practices of bicyclists in Nova Scotia to help understand why there are more male cyclists and in particular why there is such a large gender gap in the mountain bike community. This discrepancy continues to nag at me to such an extent that not only do I obsessively examine the modern day practices of bicyclists, I have a voracious interest in learning about the relationship that women of the late 19th century had with the bicycle; a need to know what role the bicycle played in the lives of women during the bicycle crazed era of the late 1800s.

I must admit I take great pleasure in describing to my students in my Sociocultural Issues in Sport class at Dalhousie University the greatness of the bicycle and its role in liberating women. I love seeing the reactions of students when I state that if it were not for the bicycle, women wouldn’t have started to wear pants until much later in the 20th century. Along with the “rational dress” of bloomers (baggy trousers), shorter skirts, and skirts with slits, the bicycle was responsible for other big changes for women of the late 1800s. The bicycle gave women access to personal freedom and instilled greater self-confidence and a sense of equality. Suffragette Susan B. Anthony’s description of a woman on a bike gives me wonderful lecture fodder to extol the prodigious nature of the bike. In 1896, Anthony stated, “I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

Indeed, I rejoice as well when I see women riding bicycles. However, it was not until recently that I realized that there was much I have overlooked when considering the role the bicycle has played in effecting change in society. There’s a whole century of information that I haven’t even considered. It wasn’t until my recent introduction to a young women working at the Pictou County Women’s Centre, lavender menace, that my eyes have been opened to the bicycle’s impact over the last 100 years. You too can learn a great deal about the wondrous history of the bicycle at lavender’s upcoming talk,“The Bicycle: THE Vehicle for Revolutionary Change”, taking place on June 12th, from 12:00 – 1:00 pm at the Celtic Circle in New Glasgow. This fascinating talk gives a brief overview of how the bicycle has impacted and changed both our physical environment and political discourses over the past 100 years. The bicycle is not seen as the object, but rather a vehicle for liberating struggle on which Feminism, Socialism, Anarchism and Environmentalism travel in pursuit of their objectives. This talk will describe how we see a shift in the bicycle from being a tool to critique immobility to a tool to critique the excess of mobility with the introduction of the automobile. As well, a discussion of how the advancement and demise of the bicycle mirrors advancements and periods of backlash in the Women's Movement will engage all those who attend.

I hope to see you there!

Sherry Huybers, Member of Pictou County Active Transportation