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Monday, 15 January 2007

Freedom Machine

Last night, over dinner, the subject of bicycles came up. Who invented them? "It was the Dutch, certainly" asserted the Dutch woman. "No, I think it was the British" said the Brit. Nicole thought it was Americans. I thought it might be the French, given the large section on bicycles in the Musée d'Arts et Metiers.

After reading the wikipedia article, well, it's not so straightforward, but it seems like Nicole and I were both right. I remembered this morning that there's a plaque in New Haven, Connecticut which says the bike was invented there. What's more interesting though, is the bike's feminist import.

The big wheel bicycles were considered inappropriate for women (and were also very dangerous), but in the 1880's, an English inventor came up with a "safety bicycle" which had pedals, a chain, small tires: the modern bike. "It was the first bicycle that was suitable for women, and as such the 'freedom machine' (as American feminist Susan B. Anthony called it) was taken up by women in large numbers." The wikipedia article goes on to state,

The impact of the bicycle on female emancipation should not be underestimated. The diamond-frame safety bicycle gave women unprecedented mobility, contributing to their larger participation in the lives of Western nations. As bicycles became safer and cheaper, more women had access to the personal freedom they embodied, and so the bicycle came to symbolise the New Woman of the late nineteenth century, especially in Britain and the United States. Feminists and suffragists recognised its transformative power. Susan B. Anthony said: "Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel...the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood." In 1895 Frances Willard, the tightly-laced president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, wrote a book called How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle, in which she praised the bicycle she learned to ride late in life, and which she named "Gladys", for its "gladdening effect" on her health and political optimism. Willard used a cycling metaphor to urge other suffragists to action, proclaiming, "I would not waste my life in friction when it could be turned into momentum."

And then, alas, bikes fell out of favor in the US, replaced by cars, and the status of women dropped. But then, "In the late 1960s . . . bicycling enjoyed another boom. Sales doubled between 1960 and 1970, and doubled again between 1970 and 1972." And continued to grow while the second wave of feminism was also getting going. Coincidence? A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Take that bike away from the fish and give it to the woman, it's her freedom machine.

Um, seriously, biking has a number of leftist benefits, but perhaps among them is some sort of inherently democratic, egalitarian nature. Bikes to do not seek to dominate and control in the manner of cars. They are self-propelled and thus reliant only on the rider for power, but at the same time, close to the terrain. Power without dominance. Maybe bikes are inherently feminist.

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