Monday, January 18, 2010

Wichita Cycle Chic?

This picture and the accompanying post sparked a heated discussion of, well, how to write about women on bicycles--on a bike blog in Portland, Oregon, of all places.

The bicycle . . . became an important part of the history of the emancipation of women. The bicycle gave women a freedom of movement that few had known. Even the restrictive clothing of the day--long, flowing dresses that clearly didn't work on a bike--began to wilt before the new device. . . . Susan B. Anthony declared that the bicycle "has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world." . . . [However,] Marguerite Lindley, a professor of physical culture in New York, warned in 1896 that cycling hindered "feminine symmetry and poise" and was a "disturber of internal organs." --Jeff Mapes, Pedaling Revolution, p. 34

I am asked to volunteer on a committee for a bicycle organization “because we need more women.” The person who invites me says that he had been frantically calling every woman he knows in the bike scene, and explains that at this point, expertise matters less than gender. --Elly Blue, "Editorial: My Year as a Woman in a City of Bikes,", January 12, 2010.

[W]hen more women begin riding, that will signal a big change in attitude, which will prompt further changes in the direction of safety and elegance. I can ride till my legs are sore and it won’t make riding any cooler, but when attractive women are seen sitting upright going about their city business on bikes day and night, the crowds will surely follow. --David Byrne, reviewing Pedaling Revolution, quoted here.
Navigating gender politics is tricky, as any thoughtful person will tell you. Navigating them by bicycle in Wichita may be more fraught with peril than I know.

I'll just blurt out my question: Do you know or have you seen women here in Wichita who regularly bike for reasons other than recreation?

Over the weekend, as I read the first two passages quoted above and was reminded of Byrne's declaration, I was struck by the irony that despite the bicycle's role in changing social attitudes among and about women, nowadays biking for utilitarian purposes is, even in bike-friendly Portland, a predominantly male activity. Anecdotally, I can attest that here in Wichita, I see plenty of women riding recreationally but have yet to see a female cyclist who is obviously commuting; I have seen a couple of women on bikes at the grocery store, though. Of those readers who visited here regularly, the vast majority were men. The first sentence in Byrne's quote is surely right, and it is indeed something I hope will come to pass in Wichita. But it's the implications of his second sentence--in particular, the adjective "attractive"--that also seems to have been a sticking point regarding the post accompanying the picture above. More women, we hope, will be attracted to cycling because of its practicality and because, as I have said in various contexts, cities benefit from having more cyclists, male and female, out and about. To focus on the, shall we say, aesthetics of women on bikes is potentially patronizing or demeaning. The Cycle Chic movement, as I note in particular here, with its goal of "riding pretty," seeks not to separate practicality from aesthetics but observe that, for women in particular, looking good matters no matter how they commute. Commuter-cycling would seem to present challenges for women that other modes of transport do not, especially in cities that aren't bike-friendly. Cycle Chic's implicit rebuttal is, Not necessarily.

So, Wichita. As I also note at the end of the post I just linked to, it may be too early for Wichita Cycle Chic to emerge--after all, we have no cycling culture at all to speak of--but I'd dearly love to be proven wrong. For, you see, one thing that Pedaling Revolution makes clear with regard to cycling culture is that what we might see as success at consciousness-raising is actually more akin to self-fulfilling prophecy: If you ride, they will join you.

At least, I hope so. They have to see you first.


Dave said...

Hey there,
glad to see you back, I hope things keep improving at home. As far as commuters go my wife would be one. I've been commuting for years but could never get her past the "I'll get all sweaty" thing until 2 years ago when she started working downtown. Then she saw a couple of the cycle chic blogs and oh boy let's go find a cute bike. We did, a nice little blue and white number from Nathan over at Continental. She rode pretty much every day the first year, less so the next and unfortunately now is out of work but she'll run some errands when the weather permits. The thing is people will ride when A) it isn't too much work and B) when it isn't so complicated as in special clothes and gear etc. Some people like that stuff but most folks like being able to get on a bike and go. Not getting slammed by a giant SUV is desirable as well. So there is hope.

John B. said...

Thanks for the welcome back, and thanks for your comments.
I'm glad to hear that your wife gave bike-commuting a long-term try--and best wishes to her in the job-hunting. I'd be interested in hearing how it went and, if she's willing, to re-post her comments here. In addition to the other impediments you mention (which, of course, are impediments to bike-commuting generally and not just for women), I think some testimonials from women would serve the cause, too.