Susan B. Anthony once said, “I think it has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world.”
On a bicycle, you forget who you are; nothing can touch you, you are a different person.
— Miriam Henderson in Dorothy Richardson’s The Tunnel (1919)
When I told my parents I wanted to purchase a bicycle for the coming summer, they told me it was too dangerous. You’ll fall, they said, so I purchased a helmet. What about when it gets dark, they asked, so I reminded them Toronto requires cyclists to use a bell and a pair of lights.
A few days later, I bought a bicycle from a secondhand repair shop. It was a lilac, small-framed mountain bike—I still own it. Its glittering stickers were chipping away so, in an attempt to look less childish, I scraped them off. My friends have commented on its size. They laugh. A small frame for my small body.
The first time I rode it, I became alarmingly aware of how small it is next to the car beside me, next to the other bicycle behind me pedaled by a tall white man.
The first bicycles were developed in Europe during the 19th century. Initially manufactured in Germany and France as the “velocipede,” the two-wheel and pedal-driven vehicle made its way to England, where it was called a “boneshaker.” It was used exclusively by men. The wrought-iron frame was stiff. With its design of an enlarged front wheel connected to a smaller rear wheel, this early bicycle made for an uncomfortable ride.
The introduction of the “safety bicycle” revolutionized the bicycle. Unlike the wooden, uneven wheels of earlier designs, the “safety bicycle” had inflated wheels of equal size, designed so that the rider’s feet could reach the ground, making it easier to stop. The addition of a chain drive that propelled the rear wheels helped to control its speed. While the “safety bicycle” was developed with children in mind, the structure of the bicycle was friendlier to women riders. This bicycle made it possible for women to ride on two wheels, navigating the city with ease and speed. Women also took to it because, unlike walking, cycling didn’t require or allow a chaperone. It freed women from being constantly under surveillance. They could roam, unsupervised.
“I think it has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world,” Susan B. Anthony once said in an interview published in the New York World in 1896. “I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives her a sense of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes a seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammeled womanhood.”
The bicycle offers a narrative of liberation and mobility, taken up in literature and film over the years. Temperance reformer and suffragist Frances Willard wrote a memoir about her bicycle (named “Gladys,”) titled A Wheel Within A Wheel: How I Learned to Ride A Bicycle, with Some Reflections by the Way, published in 1895. Willard’s praise of the bicycle’s benefits—for her health, for her political optimism—drove the suffragist movement into further action. In a 1919 novel by Dorothy Richardson, The Tunnel, we follow a young girl named Miriam Henderson who moves to London and becomes exposed to the city’s cultural and intellectual life, grows determined to learn how to ride the bicycle, then begins to imagine herself a modern, emancipated woman. The bicycle as a device of freedom for women has endured. In film, a century later, both Wadjda (2012) and The Day I Became A Woman (2000), push the narratives of liberation and mobility attached to the bicycle outside of the Western canon. This time, these are stories of brown women going against the wishes of their traditional family to own a bicycle, searching for ways to keep moving forward.
In my life, I have learned that riding the bicycle offers a kind of revelation. Turns, corners, and back alleyways become intimate points of knowing the city. You become aware of all terrain, learning to map off-roads by memory. What to avoid. Which is the best route. I have also learned how to hold the amount of space you occupy next to a larger vehicle (a car, a van, a truck). It is a practice in vigilance. And, how you carry your body—to soften your shoulders, your knuckles, its grip on the handles—going downhill and along flat, better-paved roads. How that feels like flying. An undoing.
“The cities we’ve built don’t provide equal access to everyone. [ . . . ] Men, for instance, typically don’t consider a dimly lit street lined by bars or clubs an unsafe or inaccessible part of town. For women, braving the same street past midnight has completely different connotations,” Fouad Khan writes in the essay, “Your City Has a Gender and It’s Male.” As every woman navigating a city knows, and as acknowledged by Khan and other urban planners and theorists, the modern cityscape is built and shaped by socially encoded values. From roads, buildings, public spaces, dirt, steel, and concrete to commercial and residential zoning and bylaws, the city’s infrastructure has so far neglected the intersections of race, gender, and class in its design. Think of the Toronto sprawl, how residential and commercial zoning within the greater metropolitan area has influenced the boundaries of the city, pushing immigrant women and families to the outskirts. Urban parks become dark and empty spaces that no longer serve the purpose of pleasure and activity, but of fear and challenges to many women and the poor.
Some women have imagined how bicycles might offer a way to occupy the male city. There is a scene in Lizzie Borden’s 1983 film, Born in Flames, of a woman walking on the street. She is stopped and followed by two men. The exchange is hostile. She tries to push them away. They grab her. She screams as they pin her down. From the distance, a whistling. Coming from all corners of the street, a group of women approach on bicycles, patrolling the city. They circle the men until the men disperse and run away.
The rules that we learn to navigate the city become instinct. We walk faster, ignore catcalls, follow the light of streetlamps, hold keys between our fingers, look away, look down. Our bodies, layered with our gender, our sexuality, our race, are seen in particular ways when exposed within the city.
If the modern city is designed for men, walking becomes one of the most vulnerable activities for women.
The West Toronto Railpath runs along The Junction neighborhood towards downtown Toronto. Paved in asphalt, it was designed by the city with cyclists and pedestrians in mind. At night, the Railpath is poorly lit with lamps several feet away from each other and stretches of darkness in between. In the summer, when I took the route home, I thought of the many ways I could be stopped, jumped by someone bigger hiding in the bushes, in the shadows. I pedaled faster.
On my bike, I’ve learned the difference between vigilance and aggression. There is a constant consciousness of my visibility and vulnerability: I ring the bike bell to catch the attention of drivers and pedestrians. I yell at car doors and hold my brakes, just in case. I signal with my arms to make a turn. My body is an extension of the bicycle. When it falls, I fall. Its damages are, if I’m lucky, manageable and repairable, like recovering the bike chain to the ring, re-adjusting the seat, pulling the bike back up to stand again. The impact of the pavement on my body lasts longer and lingers, marked visually by scars and bruises, reminding me that I am okay, that I can get up each time I fall. It gives me a kind of courage. Offended by the carelessness of a taxi driver and his passenger intruding into the bike lane, my voice rises.
On foot, you learn to always look after yourself, to shrink from attention if needed. On a bicycle, you learn to claim space.
The bicycle offers freedom, but is it sufficient to overcome the larger structures and dangers of the city?
The first time I fell off my bike I had been riding too fast across the train tracks near my house. My front tire was caught between the tracks, wedged there until I lost all control. I walked the rest of the way home. It was embarrassing. I remember my hands shaking, the way both of my knees felt like giving in with each step. I remember asking, how did that happen if I fell on one side only? as I looked down and saw the blood on each leg and each hand, palm, and knuckle. I remember a man on his car, slowing down to ask me if I’m okay. I remember another one telling me to get out of the way.
It hurt to walk for the next couple of days. As a joke, I told people, you should have seen the other guy, when they remark at the bruise blooming on my cheek. And then I would retreat and say, actually, the pavement won this one.