Victorian women demonstrate their cycling skills. Film from the BFI Mediatheque.
"Cycling to Suffrage" closes on Saturday at the Women's Library in Aldgate. Documenting the relationship between women's lib and bicycles from 1890 to 1914, the small foyer display includes photographs of early female cycling pioneers, first hand accounts of Edwardian "Suffrage Scouts" and their bikes, and explores how the bicycle was integrated in to the tactics of the women's rights movement. How about cycling from Land's End to London in full Edwardian dress? Or can you imagine a time when a woman could not "go out" in society (on a bike or otherwise) without their husband or a suitable chaperon? Sylvia Pankhurst, daughter of Emeline and sister to Christabel, from that great line of suffragists explains her relationship with her bicycle; "Christabel had already been demanding a bicycle in 1893 but the Doctor [their father] shrank at the thought of his young daughter riding in traffic and it was not until 1906 that she had her way... ..Our parents took it as a matter of course that if Christabel rode, I must go with her as her companion - we were now entered as members of the Clarion Cycling Club. Henceforward every available day was spent in cycling. Though the journeys were often too long for me and I could scarcely pedal the last miles, the Sundays with the club were pleasant. It was delightful to be out in the country away from the grime of Manchester. There were usually some slow women riders amongst the company but the men were kind in helping to push one up the steepest hills. It was whilst riding alone with Christabel that I endured a veritable torture. My crimson face and gasping breath were the wordless answer to her impatient "Come on!". Afraid of being considered a nuisance I would strain and strive till it would seem that my heart would burst. Finally she would disappear from me, climbing some hill and arrive home sometimes an hour before me. I remember being thrown over the handlebars and rising up so shaken that I had to walk for some distance before I could re- mount, whilst she rode on not noticing that I had ceased to follow."
Of course, it wasn't just in political and activist circles that the bicycle has had a profound effect on women. In the countryside the bike has been accredited with diversifying the gene pool of villagers who could now roam further afield to find suitable mates(!), whilst the bicycle gave a woman an autonomous means of getting about without having to rely on a man for transport for the first time. American feminist Susan B Anthony claimed the bicycle "has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world."
In later years the bicycle allowed women to go out to work and to look for it further afield - an old University lecturer of mine used to recall how she would cycle down to Kent from London every September in the 1950s to go hop picking with her girl friends and that it was a time of unbridled joy and liberation. Even today, the car is more likely to be used by the man in single car families; there is plenty of opportunity for more journeys to be made by women on bicycles.
Women of all ages and background ride in cycle-safe Amsterdam
But in today's Britain is a great disparity between the number of men who cycle and the number of women who do. 79% of all UK cycle journeys are made by men, even though fewer women hold a driving license or have access to a car. Tragically, despite fewer women than men riding in London more of them have been killed over the past 10 years by lorries and HGVs. You only need hop over the North Sea to the Netherlands to see what safe and respectful cycling conditions can do to make both men and women young and old feel safe and comfortable. But here in the UK when we invite women to cycle we're asking them to not only do something which many might consider dangerous (if they've even considered it previously at all before) but to also make themselves a minority within a minority on the road. Are the likes of Victoria Pendleton and Joanne Rowsell our latter day Suffragettes and Susan B Anthonys? Or does the problem lie at a political level and with those who control the lay out of our roads and cities? In 21st Century Britain who will lead women out to cycle again?