Ever wondered why so-called ‘men’s bikes’ have a higher crossbar than women’s? Well, keep on reading if you want to know how bicycles have been gendered since their very inception.
Right after their invention, bicycles quickly became an essential means of transportation for individuals, especially giving women and men alike greater mobility and independence by being able to bike away from the home. Contemporary dressing styles even adapted to this new mode of locomotion. Since women wearing pants was frowned upon at the time, a combination of a low crossbar, lower bicycle frames, and bloomers (wide underpants meant to keep the fabric away from the chain) allowed women to ride bicycles while wearing dresses and skirts.
Of course, women straddling bicycles, out and about town, gaining social mobility, and becoming independent enough to venture out on their own was not taken too kindly by their spouses and by society in general. Women had all of a sudden too much agency and well, this could not be.
Therefore, diverse theories emerged as to why women riding bicycles would be problematic. With the advent of bicycles, many doctors feared that women’s sexual purity was in danger because riding bikes could teach them how to masturbate. Here, it was hypothesised that the friction coupled with the warmth of exercise, could potentially stimulate the clitoris, possibly awakening sexual arousal. And of course, there stood the good old problem of how a ‘proper woman’ would never be found straddling over the seat of a bicycle. Whereas the anti-bicycles said that it would ruin women’s sexual chastity, the pro-bicycles claimed that exercise would strengthen women’s bodies thus making them more fit for motherhood (because apparently, women need a reason to cycle around). Yes, both sides are problematic.
Fortunately, these ideas are not too popular nowadays in many societies across the world where women wear whatever they want to wear as well as being able to get anywhere in whatever way they want. Unfortunately, some women have also reported an increased sexual objectification of their bodies while riding, getting derogatory and sexually explicit comments, getting touched or in extreme cases assaulted. Many a woman’s experience riding a bicycle is gendered in the least agreeable sense.
Moreover, companies and brands when advertising bicycles to women still perpetuate codes of femininity. Women’s bikes are made with a low bar and feminine (round) shapes, with a basket in front and a luggage rack in the back, and some colours and glitters sprinkled all around. That’s not to say that one cannot enjoy a bright pink bike with tassels and a basket – these are lit if you want my opinion – but they should not be imposed as the norm for women or restrict their ability to get from A to B because of less resilience/speed capacity. And because they reinforce the idea of women’s mobility being centered around carrying things (children, groceries) around whilst men are doing carefree, speedy exercise whilst biking.
Let’s agree that bikes are bikes, let them be bikes for all.