Home > Complete Streets, Design the Details, Engineering Design, Tools & Ingenuity, Traffic Calming > Celebrate International Women’s Day: go ride a bike!

Celebrate International Women’s Day: go ride a bike!

Happy International Women’s Day!

A day to celebrate women–brilliant! (Like everyday). For some reason we here in the States tend to ignore it, but the world over people take International Women’s Day off to throw parties, picnics, and in some places, take to the streets for political action. It is an opportune moment to celebrate women and self-mobilization power of the bicycle.

The bicycle, lest we forget, has played a critical role in women’s history and continues to provide emancipating freedom to women across the globe as an inexpensive and efficient means to access work, markets, schools, and health care. On this subject, and on the MyWHaT reading list, is the book  Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) (Brain Pickings Review). 

A velocipede race in Paris, published in Harper’s Weekly in 1868 from Wheels of Change.

The history hasn’t been all downhill and riding with a tailwind. What is proper and acceptable has at times been a bit ridiculous, as the list of 41 do’s and don’ts for women riders (M-Bike) published in 1895 suggests. Do you have a favorite from this list? How-about these:

  • “Don’t wear loud hued leggings”
  • Don’t cultivate a “bicycle face.”
  • Don’t ask, “What do you think of my bloomers?”
  • Don’t scream if you meet a cow. If she sees you first, she will run.
  • Don’t overdo things. Let cycling be a recreation, not a labor.
  • Don’t appear to be up on “records” and “record smashing.” That is sporty.

Australian Billie Samuels didn’t get the memo on the last two. Here she is seen setting off on a ride in 1934, koala mascot attached, on a ride from Melbourne to Sydney to break a previous record.

Photo by Sam Hood via State Library of New South Wales Flikr

Today, women can be seen as a key indicator (MyWHaT) of a community’s commitment to bicycling infrastructure. Basically, the theory says that if your city has a lot of women commuting and running daily errands on bicycles, it is a good sign, because women tend to be more cautious (some may say more intelligent) and won’t take as many chances–even more so when traveling with children.

Commuters in Chengdu, China 2009 by GLHJR

If women riding on the streets is a measuring stick, why aren’t they riding in the first place? It can’t be simply because of concerns about safety (SciAmerica) or the other postulated theory that fashion norms restrict their options. Elly Blue wrote a piece last year pointing to economics as an explanation for bicycling’s gender gap (Grist).

For her, time and money are two key blocks for getting women on bikes. They make less money compared to men and they carry more of the burden of household duties, often including picking-up and dropping-off children, or in later years, the elder parents in need of care. As she summarizes:

These kinds of responsibilities add up to more complicated transportation needs. Women make more trips than men, with diverse kinds of trips chained together. And twice as many trips as men’s are at the service of passengers — that is to say, the school drop-off, soccer practice, and the play date wedged in there between the grocery run and the commute to work (see pages 15 and 16 of this paper). No wonder the minivan is inextricably linked with motherhood in America.

As we discuss often on MyWHaT, communities have a lot of work to do to make bicycling a norm, regardless of gender. More compact, mixed neighborhoods would help everyone choose to walk or bicycle more even when they have a chain of errands to run. Safe and inviting streets and intersections will also attract people of both genders who would like to bicycle more, but prefer not to be hassled by inattentive automobile traffic that dominates the streets with a sense of entitlement reinforced by design.

An effort that is combining all off these concerns is English-based Beauty and the Bike. The effort and the accompanying film portrays what is needed to keep teenage women riding a bicycle. The film addresses the personal concerns about fitting in and looking stylish, but more importantly is provides a lesson to political leaders that, as they say, “it’s the infrastructure stupid!” Do that and you will see  empowerment of teenage women, as one teenager expresses after taking to two-wheels:

I just love the feeling. You’re free and independent. You got nothing holding you back and you just go anywhere you want, which is just really great. I t has been so liberating.”


Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.”

~ Susan B. Anthony, 1896


Happy International Women’s Day–Go ride a bike! 






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  1. Debra "not so personally embarrassed by my own comments I need to be anonymous" Graetz
    March 8, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    I can’t wait to read the book, thanks for the suggestion! I’ve never asked for a gift for Women’s Day, so I think I will simply buy it. Not that I am above asking for a bike as a Women’s Day gift though… thanks for the excuse.

  2. Njoy
    March 8, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    Oh for goodness sake, Ladies! Please! Don’t be SPORTY whatever you do.

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