Bicycling's Racist, Sexist, and Classist Beginnings, and How They Impact Bicycling Today
In today's world, we like to hail the bicycle as the instrument of freedom for the underprivileged, the poor and the oppressed. But bicycling began in the 1880s and 90s in a context of racism, sexism and classism and for the most part was reflective of that context.
But that's long gone history, right? Actually no, bicycling's not-so-egalitarian beginnings still cast a shadow in today's world of bicycling and bicycling advocacy and this is something we need to look out for.
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Did you know that…
- In the late nineteenth century, there was anxiety over whether "white, nonimmigrant middle-class women were having too few babies?" According to Women and Gender Studies Professor at New Jersey City University Ellen Garvey, cycling was thought to create healthier female bodies capable of perpetuating the white race.
- Cycling clubs tended to be all-male, very nationalistic and even a little militaristic. Zack Furness says in his book, One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility [this month's Blooming Rock Book Club selection], "cycling organizations effectively reproduced some of the worst aspects of nationalistic ideology and male chauvinism in the training of men's bodies and minds in the 1880s and 90s."
- Cycling clubs explicitly excluded African Americans, Asian Americans, the poor, and Native Americans.
- Black cyclists were explicitly banned from the League of American Wheelman, the predecessor to today's League of American Bicyclists. "Black cyclists were thoroughly marginalized in a period that defined bicycling, and by extension personal and public mobility, as an exclusive privilege reserved for middle- to upper-class whites," says Furness.
- The League of American Bicyclists didn't officially revoke the ban on African American membership until former League president Earl F. Jones – an African American attorney and bicycle advocate – passed a resolution to overturn the rule about a hundred years later on June 5, 1999. Furness points out that, "Jones's resolution illustrated the very real need for bicyclists to grapple with this racist legacy, if for no other reason than to address the seemingly forgotten, or invisible, factors contributing to habitually low African American involvement in cycling organizations, cycle sports, and bicycle transportation more broadly." [It is worth noting here that the League of American Bicyclists recently launched an Equity Initiative, which is a great first step in moving towards a more diverse and equitable bicycling future for the country.]
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But early bicycling did have a certain liberating effect for women and non-elites. It was the first time that women and the underprivileged had the ability to use personal transportation in their daily lives and to do it at their own discretion. Women used bicycles as a way to escape forced domesticity and as a way to get around without a male chaperone. [Side note: Today, bicycling is banned for women in Saudi Arabia, where women must still travel with a male chaperone]. Trains were the major mode of transportation in the 19th century. But trains were spatially segregated, separating the working classes from the wealthy. Bicycling allowed the "lower classes" to travel without class connotations and being labeled as second, third, or fourth class.
But, bicycling didn't eliminate class distinctions completely. In fact, early bicycling was fraught with class discrimination. "Elite men took great pride in their ownership over cycling, and as pioneers of the hobby they sought to keep it purified form the metaphorical stench of the "great unwashed"", says Furness.
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What does all of this have to do with bicycling today? It turns out that over a hundred years later, there is still major inequality in bicycling, whether it be towards women, minorities, immigrants or other underprivileged populations. Instead of the explicitly racist, sexist and classist cycling clubs of the 1880s and 90s, we have a bicycling community that is largely made up of a privileged white monoculture. Bicycling advocacy has largely been targeted towards those who bike by choice, which is usually white, privileged males. Women and children, who have different tendencies and patterns in bicycling than adult men, are not considered enough in bicycle planning. Cyclists who ride because they have to, because of economic factors, have been invisible whereas people who ride bicycles by choice get the most attention and the biggest say where bicycle infrastructure gets installed.
Have we come as far as we'd like when it comes to bicycling and its accessibility and empowerment for everyone, regardless of sex, class, income, age, or race? Is the bicycle the great emancipator as we like to herald it today, or is it still susceptible to some of our deeply entrenched racist, sexist and classist societal views?
The bicycle itself is a wonderful contraption that does embody the possibility of emancipation for people of almost every walk of life. With it's health benefits, zero emissions, and most importantly, low cost, the bicycle is inherently poised to be a great mobility solution for women and the underprivileged. But by itself, the bicycle will not bridge the gap that still exists today between the privileged and the underprivileged. It is us, as people, that must do this with a concerted and courageous effort at inclusivity.