Breaking the cycle with cycling: The history of bikes as empowerment
Girls and Women

Breaking the cycle with cycling: The history of bikes as empowerment

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An open letter to leaders

Throughout history, many inventions have undoubtedly helped women. Everything from birthing kits, to video technology, to agricultural developments, and so much more have helped women thrive and fight for better, more equal lives. Among all the great products that have impacted women around the world, there is an unsung hero: the bicycle.

You might be thinking: What do bikes have to do with gender equality? As it turns out, a whole lot!

The long journey of the bicycle, originally called a velocipede, began in 1817. By the end of the 19th century, they had gained popularity around the world, and women wanted to be part of the craze. Early female riders faced social stigma, issues with clothing, and even harassment. One such rider, Emma Eades, was attacked with bricks and stones while riding the streets of London because her actions were considered improper.

Despite the challenges in the way, more and more women began riding bicycles because they were able to easily travel without a chaperone, making bicycles into a suffragette symbol for freedom. It’s no wonder that Susan B. Anthony claimed the invention “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”

Though women have come a long way on bicycles, the fight for the right to ride rages on. There is a clear need for women to have access to bicycles, but issues of safety, street harassment, and poor infrastructure can still limit bike transportation for women.

Across the world, this problem can have even worse consequences. Lack of transportation plays an enormous role in many of the barriers to education, including having to travel great distances, how safely students can travel, how much time they have to commute, and the social stigmas around bicycling.

Social perceptions, in particular, have had terrible effects on women. In Iran in 2016, a group of women was arrested for violating modesty laws by riding bikes. Women riding bikes have also been discouraged in nations like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Afghanistan.

Though issues with women riding bikes still exist in places around the world, the solution remains the same: Create access to bikes and encourage people to ride. Cycling campaigns have popped up all around Africa, including the Village Bicycle Project and the Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative. According to World Bicycle Relief, access to bikes can allow women and girls in Africa better access to education, healthcare, and employment. Women can also experience an increase in safety when traveling in comparison to walking.

Bicycles have long served as a source of empowerment, and the trend continues to this day. When denied equal rights and opportunities, women fight through rough terrain and create their own paths.


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An open letter to leaders

Dear World Leaders, We’re putting you on notice. For 130 million girls without an education. For one billion women without access to a bank account. For 39,000 girls who became child brides today. For women everywhere paid less than a man for the same work. There is nowhere on earth where women have the same opportunities as men, but the gender gap is wider for women living in poverty. Poverty is sexist. And we won’t stand by while the poorest women are overlooked. You have the power to deliver historic changes for women this year. From the G7 to the G20; from the African Union to your annual budgets; we will push you for commitments and hold you to account for them. And, if you deliver, we will be the first to champion your progress. We won’t stop until there is justice for women and girls everywhere. Because none of us are equal until all of us are equal.

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