There isn’t one way to be a woman on a bike today, and the lifestyle of a cyclist is a packed commitment. Women on bikes struggle to be seen as strong and capable while navigating through a male dominated community, a sexist society, and a starved industry of female opportunity. As I dove into Women’s History Month, I found that the bicycle’s history and women’s history go hand in hand. Over time, the bicycle has become a tool for women by providing transportation, empowering independence, and expanding opportunity in athletics. For over 100 years women across the world have chosen to utilize the bike in many different ways.
In America, we take full advantage of cars for the majority of our transportation, but other countries are not as fortunate. In 2015, the war in Yemen caused a blockade at their main port, creating a fuel shortage and making travel by car prohibitively expensive. Bushra Al Fusail, a Yemeni photojournalist and Women’s rights activist, had the idea of gathering other women to ride by bike through the Sana’a capital in protest against the port shutdown. Women in Yemen had been fighting for the right to work and provide for their families and were on a positive trajectory before the war started. The ride reminded women and their communities that transportation is necessary for them to continue working towards the lifestyle they had originally intended.
“Biking was our way of showing that nothing can stop us—not bombing, not cultural taboos, this is our right; we have a right to live and the right to movement.”
– Bushra Al Fusail*
Using the bicycle to women’s advantage showed bravery and revealed that bicycles offer alternative transportation options for everyone, but especially for women breaking away from restrictive cultural and religious expectations.
The ride gained traction in Bushra’s community, but not all women were able to ride. Some lacked experience or didn’t own a bike, so other female riders began teaching each other how to ride in their backyards. Marwa Qaed was an accounting student during this time when she found out that women were gathering to ride bikes in protest and expressed that they may have started a revolution.
“I do not have a bicycle,” Qaed said. “But I will try to get one from my friend to teach me how to bike and I will join the women to do a revolution against the society*.”
In the 19th century, women were considered delicate, and their purpose was largely predetermined. A woman was expected to stay at home, but when she had to travel she would walk or go by carriage. The method of transportation was determined by your class, and women were always expected to travel by the side of their husbands (if they were allowed to be in public at all.) However, the invention of the “safety bicycle” in 1885 revolutionized the way people moved. The safety bicycle was reserved primarily for men and children—women were criticized by their communities when they wanted to ride the new and exciting two-wheeled machine.
“Bicycles were, up until 1890s, considered masculine accessories, for multiple reasons — one of which was the fact that they couldn’t be ridden sidesaddle, which was considered the only delicate way for a woman to ride anything. (Women of the era who rode astride horses rather than side-on were widely mocked as odd and unfeminine**.)”
The safety bicycle made way for the pioneers of women’s cycling. Women of this time faced many obstacles and judgements about how the bike could affect their reproductive organs or how they shouldn’t be moving for exercise because of the strained face they would make. Women were controlled and were expected to live up to the demands of men. Society had a view of women which limited their abilities, but also their rights. Regardless, dedicated women continued to ride for leisure, exercise, and transportation ushering in the new age for bicycles.
As a woman, I’ve never felt more empowered than I do right now. Throughout my life, I’ve been involved in sports and expressed myself through competition. I’ve learned to grow and achieve my goals through the structures of commitment and comradery, as well as my passion to win. The bike came into my life at an impeccable time and has opened so many doors for me. The cycling community is one of my main inspirations to race my bike. There are many ride leaders that host races and open categories for Women/Trans/Femme (non-binary) while promoting inclusivity and equal payout for podiums. By opening a fair playing field for women to be themselves in the race scene, these leaders help encourage women and those who identify to come participate.
Inclusive athletics are so important, especially because they offer visuals for the youth. If women aren’t racing and riding bikes, how will we inspire the next generation of female riders? It’s motivating for me to see women in other countries using the bicycle in ways that accommodate them. I use my bike to my own advantage everyday, and being able to share a common utility makes me feel powerful. Women and bikes have come a long way together and history shows that women are able to take advantage of their independence in many ways by riding bikes. Moving forward, my main goal is continuing to make a place for women through greater opportunities in cycling.