Since their inception, bicycles have been gendered. When they were first invented, they were a long sought after means of transportation for women and were even adapted to women’s contemporary dressing styles. The low crossbar of the bicycle frame allowed women to ride it while wearing dresses and skirts because at the time, women wearing pants was frowned upon. Bloomers – wide underpants that helped in keeping the fabric away from the chain became increasingly popular with the advent of bicycles.
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. While the interest for bicycle-riding rose, doctors grew concerned that riding bikes could teach women how to masturbate and thus affect their sexual purity and chastity (if riding with another man). Or perhaps the friction, combined with the warmth generated from exercise, could potentially stimulate the clitoris and labia – and possibly awaken sexual feelings and arousal. And of course, there stood the good old problem of how a ‘proper woman’ should never be found straddling over the seat of a bicycle. Whereas the anti-bicycles said that it would ruin women’s sexual health, the pro-bicycles claimed that exercise would strengthen women’s bodies thus making them more fit for motherhood because women needed a reason to cycle around apparently. Yes, both sides are problematic in many ways.
Fortunately, these ideas are not too popular nowadays in many societies across the world where women wear pants, shorts, and all kinds of clothes as well as are able to commute to and from work 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. Yes, a woman’s experience riding a bicycle is still gendered and this should not be.
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 shapes, with a basket in front and a luggage rack in the back, and some colours and glitters sprinkled all around. It’s well suited for a Sunday bike ride to the park, but if you want to get efficiently from A to B, women’s bikes won’t always cut it. 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.
Bikes are bikes, let them be bikes for all, irrespective of gender.