Freedom in the Form of a Bicycle

maggie cooperFreedom. It means different things to different people. As a child, freedom to me meant a whole Saturday to ride my bike, named Winning Colors in honor of the female horse that won the1988 Kentucky Derby, across ditches, dirt roads, woods, marshes, and the occasional paved street. In college, freedom was being able to ride my bike down the oak tree canopied streets of Charleston, SC and forget about stresses that go along with transitioning from a teenager to a real adult. Now, my bike gives me freedom from gas prices, gym memberships and traffic. But despite being a life-long bicyclist, I never really thought about the freedom the bicycle has offered to so many people, especially women, since its creation in the mid 1800’s.

“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.  It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance” ~ Susan B. Anthony, 1896

The bicycle gave women of all social standings unprecedented mobility in the late 1800s and was considered a vital tool in the suffragist movement. The bicycle gave women the opportunity to participate in the world in new ways, especially because they were no longer reliant on men for travel. They quickly expanded their cultural, geographical, social, economic and political horizons. In addition to being a cheap, safe and efficient way for women to move around town, the bike craze directly impacted what women were expected to wear, replacing corsets and long dresses with the far more rational and comfortable bloomers.  By instilling a sense of freedom and confidence in women of this time period, the bicycle was directly involved in the major shift in women’s rights.

Nowadays, we need to do a better job of making sure bicycles can continue to bring freedom to women, especially in lower-income communities and communities of color. Fatality and injury rates while bicycle-riding are higher in communities of color, which shows an obvious need for more equitable access to safe infrastructure and crime-free neighborhoods.  Between 2007-2011, the number of women who commute to work by bicycle grew by 56 percent, but women consistently say they feel less safe bicycling than men do. This is mostly because women are less likely than men to take part in an activity that is perceived to be dangerous. Communities that invest in infrastructure that supports safe bicycling not only increase their number of women riders, but also experience positive impacts on the health, wellbeing and overall safety of all of their citizens, regardless of their income or zip code.

In honor of women’s history month, I challenge everyone to go on a bike ride with your daughter, wife, girlfriend, mother, sister, aunt or grandmother. Celebrate and appreciate the freedom that has not always been (and unfortunately is still not) afforded to all women. And during this ride, think about ways you can help change the infrastructure and mindsets in your community that are keeping women of all ages from feeling safe enough to ride.