A woman needs a bicycle like a fish needs water

Post in: German

There’s a German expression that says “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” The phrase sprang to my mind more than once on Tuesday night when I attended a talk by a colleague on “The history of women and bicycles.”
Pause for a moment. Did you ever think about the history of women and bicycles before? Neither had I.
But it’s a profound and interesting history, actually. Before the bicycle, the primary means of transportation was with horse-drawn wagons or on foot. Upper class and upper-middle class women in Europe at that time were not allowed to move so freely on foot, and they may have needed permission of the man of the house to use the wagon or horse. The bicycle ultimately was one of the key inventions that liberated women – first the upper class, and then, as production costs sunk and it became more affordable, for everyone – especially city dwellers for whom a horse was impossible to own, keep, and maintain.
The bicycle in its very first incarnations did not help women much, since mounting it – those huge front wheels, tiny rear wheels – was a complicated and dangerous act that required throwing the legs around. Since a woman could not show her legs, she couldn’t get on the bicycle. This reminds me of the Chemistry building at Rice University in Houston Texas, which was built around 1914 and had no “first step” – the steps to get into the building required a tall first step, two steps high: the purpose? Excluding women from the Chemistry building, since showing their ankles was forbidden. How far we have come. The Chemistry building got a real “first step” added and women show their ankles regularly. But I digress.
Women of the upper class created a hot market for bicycles, first tricycle-like vehicles where they could sit on a seat between two wheels. Later two-wheeled bicycles – weighing up to 50 kilograms – were invented for women that had a low bar in the center so that their skirts would fit and legs wouldn’t show. There were attachments for the bicycles, like metal skirts, to protect prying eyes from seeing the woman rider’s legs. That made the bike heavy, but at least the woman was not in the category of a “wanton woman.” Women took to the bicycle like a fish to WATER because it gave them freedom. They were harassed for riding, passersby threw mud and worse at them, but they rode anyway. Moving a 50 kilogram hunk of wood and steel across stony roads in corsets and up to 7 petticoats could not have been easy. Doctors at the time thought the bicycle would cause sterility in women, cause too much blood to flow to the wrong places. Tons of reasons were invented why women shouldn’t ride. And yet the market grew to the point that in some urban areas, sales of bicycles to women outnumbered sales of bicycles to men by 4 to 1. Susan B. Anthony is reported to have said in 1896, “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.”Susan B. Anthony (1896), “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.”
The freedom and safety that a bicycle affords women even today is something we discussed in the group and that I experienced myself tonight. After a certain hour, cities are full of men and couples, but a single woman walking alone is a rare site. A woman on a bicycle has a degree of mobility, speed, and light – the streets are better lit than the sidewalks – that gives her the chance to be out after a woman pedestrian might otherwise think twice. I myself was out tonight meeting some friends until around 11 PM in the city. I brought my bicycle with me on the subway, and I was able to ride from the meeting place to the subway without a second thought about my safety. A few colorful characters exited the subway at my stop, and again, I was grateful to be able to get on my bike and ride like the wind home. No worries in my mind that a lone pedestrian or even a group of pedestrians would be able to chase me down. Thanks, bicycle, and thanks to generations of women in the last century who braved scorn and assault to pave the way for us today to just hop on and go!

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