July 31, 2010

Feminism and Cycling, the "Untrammeled Woman"


Cycling is inherently feminist.

Susan B Anthony, after whom the 19th Amendment is nicknamed, once said, “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

In a time when women were prohibited from wearing pants, donning “bloomers” to straddle a bicycle saddle was seen as a bold statement of protest, liberation, and freedom. As the bicycle’s popularity soared in the 1890’s, it became a symbol of mobility, and as women began moving out of the cloistered domestic realm, the bicycle became not only a symbol but a tool of activism.

Today, especially in Los Angeles’ Car Kingdom, the bicycle is still a symbol and a tool of activism. It’s a bold statement against oil consumption, traffic, and pollution, and like all other forms of activism, it’s not easy. Cyclists are often denied their rights to the road by motorists and law enforcement. Riding a bicycle can be dangerous and discouraging. It’s not too unlike confronting men with their sexism, suffering the humiliation of gendered condescension, or constantly wondering if people are seeing you or your sex.

Riding a bicycle is a celebration of the body. I first began riding a bike after I graduated from college and found myself stranded in the real world with no money, no job – and following a devastating break up with my college sweetheart – no happiness. I broke an unused bicycle out of my parents’ garage and began riding around. My first bicycle commute was from West Hollywood to Silver Lake and I remember being nervous because it was five miles. In time, however, the rush of endorphins improved my mental health, and not too unlike the women who took hold of the handlebars in the 1890s, I experienced a renewed sense of freedom and empowerment. Not only could I conquer distance, I could conquer it all with the sheer force of my body.

So how could I continue to loathe a body that can move me five or ten or a hundred miles in a day? For years I’d struggled with the symptoms of a national epidemic, the result of a culture infected with exploitative advertisements, a media-manufactured illness of insecurity.. I had starved myself, poisoned myself, exhausted myself, punished myself, and no matter how low the scale dropped, I could not escape the big thighs I inherited from my mother and her mother before her. My whole life I had been at war with them.

The more I rode, finally graduating to a sleek pink road bike, the more I came to love my thighs, the pistons of my bike-body, propelling me forward, sometimes for hours and miles on end. My legs and I climbed hills, rode across the night, raced other cyclists, and ducked between close calls. My hems peaked – I was proud of my big legs, they were cyclist’s legs, they were powerful legs. Dimpled with cellulite and prickly with hair, they were beautiful, and after training for and completing two century rides in the space of a couple of months, no one could tell me that my weight or my shape was unhealthy. Through cycling I learned to revere and respect my body, and at last, came to peace with it.

I hate that feminism must so often revolve around something as shallow as appearances, especially when we have much larger issues to address. Our bodies, however, have become our greatest obstacles to our personal and communal success, and, knowing this, advertising and media continues to challenge our freedom with petty distractions. Like Susan B Anthony, the bicycle became an energetic symbol of “untrammeled womanhood” to me.

That’s how cycling is inherently feminist.

In Los Angeles, where the bike lane is still the final frontier, cycling is inherently activist in spirit and execution. As far as I’m concerned, it’s open war on the asphalt, and as I “suit up” to ride, I often feel like a soldier heading into combat. As a result, the cyclists of LA have formed a roguish community with lofty ideals of acceptance, environmentalism, and beer. This community is split into smaller allegiances, but we’ve all ridden together.

Heady with the new rush of riding, I immersed myself in the community, and I echoed our battle cry for equal rights on the road. Too many times I witnessed vehicular and police intimidation, and too many times I, alone on my 44cm bike, suffered attempted assaults on my life at the hands of reckless and malicious drivers alike. At best, I’ve been yelled at, honked at, and sexually harassed on my bike; at worse, I’ve dodged a lobbed wrench and braked just in time to miss the bumper of a BMW that aggressively swerved around and then braked hard in front of me, the driver screaming obscenities at me throughout. Even though I had four of the car’s seven license plate numbers, the LAPD refused to take my report, instead admonishing me for not wearing my helmet on a two mile trip to the bank…which sounds a lot like the “she shouldn’t have been wearing that dress” excuse.

We cyclists are often relegated to second class citizenship on the road, where drivers feel entitled to intimidate, attack, and disregard us. We’ve been unfairly cuffed and searched, and in one instance, a patrol car attempted to run a group of us off the road, then fled down a freeway onramp. We’ve attended city hall meeting after meeting, and each time the heads nod and the mouths make promises of reform that are rarely ever kept. Judges favor drivers in the hit and run accident cases that usually leave cyclists brutally injured and maligned, or worse, dead. In the year and a half I’ve been riding in Los Angeles, I’ve seen the erection of three ghost bikes – bicycles painted white and placed at the location where a fellow cyclist has been slain. When confronted with our grievances, motorists like to point out the famous stop-sign-running cyclist, but never have the courage to report on the numbers of drivers who merely roll through intersections or speed through red lights. Is it any wonder that we sometimes take to the streets in swarming hives to ride in the safety of numbers? From the outside it may appear as hooliganism, but inside, we’re angry and we’re taking solace in each other’s company.

Activism is inherent to cycling in Los Angeles, and feminism is activism focused on equality.

So imagine my surprise when I joined a bike shop co-op and attempted to create a women’s only night at the shop only to be met with a loud cry of criticism and lack of enthusiasm from the members of one of the most popular LA cycling communities.

I joined the west side based bike shop, Bikerowave, in order to learn bicycle mechanics. At that time, board members at the shop encouraged myself and a group of girls to start a women and trans only night similar to Bicycle Kitchen’s Bitchin’ Kitchen. The idea was to create a space where girls, women, and transpeople would feel comfortable coming in to wrench on their bikes. The shop scene is easily male dominated, which can be intimidating to someone who is not male. As women, we’ve been socialized to leave the tools and the greasy towels to the men, and even if we know better, it can be difficult to remain confident in a room full of men who appear expertly knowledgeable. The point of Bikerowave is that you pay to use the bike stands and tools that you probably don’t have at home, and mechanics are available to assist. Not all the mechanics are bike gurus, and some mechanics have only specialized knowledge, so we’re all supposed to learn together. But too often the tools end up in a man’s hands and women and girls are denied the opportunity to learn as we want them to learn. I can admit that I too am guilty of denying a woman’s learning experience because I thought she simply couldn’t do it.

When we began advertising our night, which, prior to “Bikerobabes” (as we named ourselves), was a closed night for the shop, men in the scene reacted with mockery and outrage. To clarify, most people in the community supported our initial effort, but the voices that spoke against us spoke loudly. “Why don’t girls just learn how to deal with it?” “I don’t support feminism, I support humanism.” “If I wear a dress, does that make me a woman?” “How come there isn’t an all guy’s night?” “We don’t need feminism anymore.” Accompanied by a stream of demeaning images of naked or nearly naked women on bikes. Most heartbreaking, the women and girls within the community exhibited no support, and when asked regarding, denounced feminism or didn’t want to be associated with the night.

The incredible objection to Bikerobabes was discouraging, and after a few weak months of women and trans only Tuesday nights at Bikerowave, the board decided to shutter the doors on Bikerobabes, and now Tuesday nights are like any other at the shop.

Considering the Riot Grrrls who rose out of the alternative – but still sexist – punk scene, this is merely history repeated. A scene which loudly proclaims an alternative, inclusive, non -conformist community is still mired in the patriarchy that places one sex’s importance over the other…just as Los Angeles places the importance of drivers over cyclists on the streets. A backlash legacy of ignorance surrounding feminism’s history and true intentions prevents female cyclists from embracing a movement of empowerment that mirrors, supports, and would strengthen the bike riding movement. Inheriting a culture that places the value of a woman solely on her looks, many of the scarce females in the bike scene merely continue to conform to the ideals and expectations that the scene supposedly decries. A tremendous aura of machismo surrounds the scene and a lot of the more visible women are proudly “one of the guys.” On smaller rides where I was often the only woman, I was commented on when all I really wanted to do was ride fast. On big group rides, little effort is made to accommodate women’s restroom needs, which, as we know, involves a lot more than just “whipping it out.” When this has been mentioned, the general attitude is to keep up or keep out, further discouraging women and girls from riding and asserting themselves in a scene which could only benefit from an inner community of women.

Unfortunately, we all suffer from social and historical amnesia, the side effect of the achievements in equality those before us wrought, those we have forgotten in our comfort. I too suffered from this amnesia until recently wakened from my social coma. I am also responsible for the lack of feminism in the bike community because I have since spaced myself from it, keeping ties only through Bikerowave, where I have abandoned Bikerobabes as a lesser priority. It is my fault too and I acknowledge that.

Before riding a bike, I’d been stubbornly ignorant. “Why would anyone ride when they can just drive?” I would say to my friends on two wheels, “I’ll get sweaty. It’s too much work. It’s dumb. It’s dangerous.” Around my college campus, where many people cycled to and from, I would become angry stuck behind a bike. I’d honk and pass aggressively. I would drive less than a mile from my apartment to the parking garage almost every day. Faced with financial restrictions, I was forced on a bicycle just to get around, and it changed my life. Likewise, I was once a woman who internalized misogyny in my pursuit of attaining the constructed masculine attributes that patriarchy has made precious. I hated anything feminine, including the color pink, and most of all, I hated myself. Cycling taught me how to embrace and love my body, and feminism gave me the tools to continue dissecting the media and advertising that would rather I starve myself than ride my bike.

I am not ready to turn my back entirely on the cycling community, and every time a driver gets too close because he simply “did not see me,” I feel that activism stirring within me. I continue to ride even though some days are downright defeating. I love riding my bike and I think it’s important to ride a bike. I truly believe it is the solution to pollution, this nation’s rising obesity problem, depression, and crippled self-esteem. It is a manifestation of activism and of feminism.

Which is why I believe that Los Angeles cycling can and must embrace feminism – the two are intimately connected – and it’s how I know that I cannot lose hope. I know that it is just as much my responsibility to promote feminism on two wheels as it is everyone else’s. The defeat of Bikerobabes was a pretty large blow to my determination, but I’ve had time to recuperate, and I’ve taken that time to equip myself with the knowledge, history, and tools of feminism. I’ve been strategizing and I am just about ready to strike.


  1. Liz, wonderful to read your post, especially your story of how you came to bicycling and bicycle activism. The bike activist world is filled with strong-minded, individualistic people, who overcame not only the fear of traffic but also the fear of disapproval of their peers, the biggest obstacle of all to more people adopting bicycling. Although bike activists have generally broken free of the car culture, we can still be slaves to the sexist or racist patterns of thought that our society at large keeps trying to imprint on us. It’s discouraging, but don’t lose heart, there’s always a way to organize and get your goal accomplished.

    Have you thought about taking the show on the road? You don’t need a bike shop or a workstand to teach bike repair. In NYC, my club has outdoor bike repair courses – mostly simple stuff, flat fixing, bike-fitting, brake tuning, etc. We meet downtown somewhere, bike off to an appropriate park space and teach the class. We also sponsor tables where we provide free bike repair or bike fitting to folks passing by.

    As you decribed above, bicycling gives you an independent transportation mode, and the next step towards that independence is to be able to fix and maintain your bike yourself. And once you teach people to be self-reliant, well, that’s the key to building the activist community.

    Good luck and courage!

    Comment by Ed Ravin — August 1, 2010 @ 10:52 am

  2. I’m an intern at Ms. magazine spending the summer biking around Los Angeles, and I feel exactly the same way you do. Thank you so much!

    Comment by Kate Whittle — August 2, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

  3. Loved the article!Showed to my friend Mike and even in all of his epic chauvinism he had to agree with youon some points 🙂 And you look like a total BAMF in the photo!

    Comment by Cleo — August 11, 2010 @ 8:02 am

  4. “to start a women and trans only night”

    *sigh* I was really interested in the article until I read this. Unfortunately, I know exactly what is meant by trans here. You mean trans men. Who are men, not women. And trans women, like me, who are not men but, in fact, women? We’re almost always specifically excluded. And if we’re *NOT* excluded, then there’s NO reason at ALL to differentiate between trans and cis women.

    Comment by Carla Anderson — September 1, 2010 @ 12:34 am

  5. Hi! I love this article! I would like to reproduce this in my nonprofit bike shop’s volunteer handbook. If that’s okay, how should I attribute it? If it comforts you, our shop is living proof that there is a inherently feminist-centered shop which flourishes from that focus and commitment, although there are many obstacles. It can definitely be depressing. It means distancing ourselves from the “party scene” which tend to be most flippant and misogynist and building alliances with women of all backgrounds.

    Comment by Rustie — September 6, 2010 @ 3:42 am

  6. I’ll email you directly.

    Comment by Melanie — September 6, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

  7. […] Which is why I’ve just spent a lot of time pulling faces and re-reading Feminism and Cycling, the “Untrammeled Woman.” […]

    Pingback by Feminism and cycling « Frank, Hayley and the Circus — September 9, 2010 @ 8:00 pm

  8. hi

    any chance we could quote this in our soon to be published wimmin’s bike zine?


    nes x

    Comment by nes — January 10, 2011 @ 7:33 am

  9. Fabulous article! I just moved to DC for the summer and have been nervous about biking because of the traffic and my lack of knowledge of the city. But today, for the first of many days, I biked around the entire city and you are absolutely right- it is so empowering.
    Also, thanks for making the powerful connection to feminism; another interesting element that I thought of while reading was how “safe” I felt while on my bike (not from traffic, obviously) but from the men on the side of the street, that I still get nervous. For example I would feel much safer biking home at night than walking, maybe that fear is misplaced, but for me biking is as liberating now as it was in the 1900s.

    Comment by Emily — May 30, 2011 @ 4:14 pm

  10. […] is that the combination has the potential to be a powerful agent for feminist social change and activism as it has been in other countries such as the USA. One example of that within Australia is Otesha: […]

    Pingback by friday feminaust ~ Tori Pearce | — June 9, 2011 @ 3:46 pm

  11. Outstanding.

    One of the empowering things about the bike for me is its simplicity and the fact that I can fix a flat or put a slipped chain back on. I can’t do the equivalent for my car. Admittedly I could learn but it’s definitely more complicated, and now since I bike almost everywhere for transportation the car knowledge doesn’t seem all that useful.

    Even more empowering is the sensation of going somewhere fast under my own power. I feel so strong and beautiful, in a way that has nothing to do with Madison Avenue’s version of beauty and everything to do with loving the way it feels to use my body in a useful and enjoyable way.

    Thank you for writing this. I’m adding a quote and the link at the end of a recent post I wrote on biking and self-image (http://bikestylespokane.com/2011/07/31/feeling-good-biking-and-self-image) and putting it out via the women’s bike blog feeds I have on Twitter and Facebook in hopes that more women will find it, read it, speak out, and ride.

    Founder, Women’s Bike Blogs

    Comment by Barb Chamberlain — August 11, 2011 @ 8:24 pm

  12. […] activism (more specifically feminism) and how the two relate within the frame of Los Angeles. The “Untrammeled Woman” at Feminist […]

    Pingback by a month of weekly nomz | Visions of Arcadia — September 10, 2011 @ 3:09 am

  13. […] Deveny reminded us that American feminist Susan B Anthony, after whom the 19 Amendment in the US Constitution is named, saw the bicycle as an essential tool […]

    Pingback by On your bike | Latitude Media — March 27, 2012 @ 7:05 pm

  14. Muchos Gracias for your blog post.Much thanks again. Keep writing.

    Comment by Kristen Duley — April 19, 2012 @ 2:50 am

  15. […] were sold in the United States , about one for every 30 inhabitants.”  I agree, that “cycling is inherently feminist.”  I’m proud to be a part of this tradition, just as I am proud when vote or support women […]

    Pingback by Ride Peggy, Ride | Peggy Lu Who's Just Sayin'! — March 24, 2013 @ 6:18 pm

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