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Are bikes a symbol of women's emancipation?

08 March 2021

Fewer women are cycling in the capital. In fact, in 2019 63,9% of cyclists were men compared to just 36,1% of female cyclists. These are the results from the Bike Observatory conducted by Pro Velo in the Brussels capital region. However, history has well and truly shown that two wheels have given women a certain freedom and emancipation. In fact, women's cycling is once again in its golden period.

In the 2019 study 'Being a female cyclist on the streets of Brussels' involving more than 1,200 women, Pro Velo revealed that women encounter several obstacles when getting into the saddle. Long journeys, cycling with children or a heavy load, the weather, hills or even clothing were the main challenges mentioned by respondents.

The analysis went even further and highlighted 4 key factors which either hindered or facilitated cycling for women:

  • The influence of social relationships: the position of women in society or the representation of cycling is essentially masculine, as well as the range of cycling clothing.
  • Gendered responsibilities concerning home life and the family: women tend to make more journeys than men to carry out household or family tasks.
  • Risks of the road and sense of danger: an increased feeling among women of potential risks linked to cycling in an urban environment. Women are more likely to exercise caution during their journeys in public places.
  • Women's relationship to the environment and the notion of care: a tendency to make healthier and more environmentally friendly choices.

Despite these different concerns, cycling has well and truly afforded women a great deal of societal development. A battle which could almost be considered a mobility conquest.

Cycling for women was originally seen as inappropriate because it represented freedom and emancipation. However that has not prevented many women from claiming the right to cycle! In fact, over time women have been able to cement their position in the world of cycling - a world considered 'masculine'.

The advantages of cycling for women over the years:

  1. Dress:

At the beginning female cyclists wore puffy trousers called 'bloomers'. Over time skirts shortened and the style of dress became more relaxed.

Nowadays women tend to wear everyday clothing, not forgetting, when necessary, waterproof jackets or trousers.

Several articles by Pro Velo on the topic of women's cycling clothing are available on the association's website.

  1. Freedom of movement:

Cycling has been a way for women to travel further and more quickly thanks to it being a democratic and accessible means of transport.

During the Second World War it was very common for women to be in charge of the link between different resistance groups or maquis, between a network and general staff. They usually carried messages by bike.

At the time - and even now in some countries - this allowed them to enter neighbouring villages more easily. These journeys frightened their husbands and fathers who lost some control over the women in their families.

Fortunately today women can take full advantage of the benefits of cycling in urban areas and go quickly to wherever they desire. However there are still some countries in which cycling for women is a complicated matter.

  1. The representation of the feminine gender:

In the 19th century in England public opinion stated that cycling was bad for one's health, morale and the reputation of women. 'Cycling is not feminine' protested medical experts at the time... Scientists thoughts that bikes posed a danger to their reproductive organs or their sexuality. It was said that friction against the saddle could lead to sexual pleasure.

Currently in western society most women are comfortable in their skin when they cycle. Women's cycling is gaining a foothold and there are feminist groups, such as Déchainé.es which campaigns for the use of bikes as a tool for emancipation and collective struggle. As part of Pro Velo's En selle! campaign, several women detailed their experiences cycling.

Therefore in two centuries huge improvements have been made. And that's great news!

The right to cycle has emancipated women. Thanks to bikes, women can go where they want, when they want and with whom they want. Who would have thought that two wheels and a handlebar could open so many new horizons?

Did you enjoy this article?

On 5 May from 5 pm until 6 pm Bike Experience is organising a free conference about cycling for women at Théâtre Marni. Here Pro Velo will present the findings from the 'Being a female cyclist on the streets of Brussels' survey. Afterwards you will be able to hear the experiences of some female cyclists. To end the session, there will be a chance for discussion.

Registration for this conference is compulsory and is done by sending an email to enselle@provelo.org.

In addition, as part of the En selle! campaign, Pro Velo has gathered the experiences of female cyclists in Brussels. Find them on Instagram and Facebook as well as the group's website throughout the campaign from March to June 2021.

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