Cycling & Feminism

cycling and feminism

Cycle commuting in the UK at the moment is very much a male dominated mode of transport. This is often used as an argument as to why more money shouldn’t be spent on it – suddenly commentators who’ve never given even half a fuck about women and minorities decide they care when it comes to spending money on cycling – which is a really idiotic argument that ignores the fact that where you DO spend money on cycling, suddenly people who aren’t white, male young and fit join in. Hence why the Netherlands actually has more women making journeys by bike than men. A better argument would be quite the other way around- that if you have a mode of transport that only white young fit men use regularly, then there’s a big problem for access to that mode of transport that we need to fix. I mean, if only white young fit men were able to safely use buses we wouldn’t be saying BAN BUSES we’d be saying “how can we make buses safer so that everyone can use them?”

velocipeding - (c)2006-2015 Kate Beaton - Hark, a vagrant
(c)2006-2015 Kate Beaton – Hark, a vagrant

It often strikes me, in both off and online conversations about cycling and how cyclists are often framed by mass media, random internet people, gits on twitter and people psychologically* welded to their cars, that cycling and feminism have rather a lot in common.

As both a woman and a cyclist, there’s something horribly familiar about the reaction I get when I talk about experiences on my bike.

I am asked what was my road position, was I in the middle of the road, was I indicating? (was I walking home alone?)

I am asked if I was wearing lights. (Did you have your headphones on? Were you alert?)

I am asked if I was wearing a helmet, or hi-vis (what were you wearing?)

I get sent links to paint that will allegedly make my bike glow at night (have you seen this anti rape nail varnish?)

I am asked what did I do to make the driver angry, did I provoke them? (He was just saying hello, it’s a compliment, you should have said thank you)

I am asked why don’t I just get the bus, if cycling is so scary. (It’s just not safe out there. Men can’t be trusted).

I am told that it’s just a few bad drivers, that I shouldn’t tar all drivers with the same brush (not ALL men.)

Constantly, over and over, it’s deemed the responsibility of the cyclist to behave in a way that will make sure a car doesn’t hit them, just as women are constantly expected to behave in a way to make sure a man doesn’t rape them.

At the extreme ends of cycle hatred you get people talking about “anti-car agendas” and how motorists are being disadvantaged by all these concessions to cyclists; just as you get “men’s rights activists” who rail at how white men are being disadvantaged by women demanding things like equal pay and bodily autonomy.  Both make the mistake of thinking that losing unearned privileges you’ve always had is the same thing as being oppressed.

The anti-cyclist rhetoric is particularly virulent in the UK at the moment, as proper cycling infrastructure is on the increase, particularly across London. With Mini Holland schemes, quietways, cycling superhighways popping up all over the place and an increasing acknowledgement that increasing cycling take up has benefits to the health of the population and the economy as well as individuals. Just as Susan Faludi’s theory was that a feminist backlash demonstrates that the women’s equality movement is making gains, people have been suggesting that a backlash against cyclists – a “bikelash” – shows that cycling is becoming more a part of the mainstream.

Cyclists and feminists both are viewed as some sort of amorpous mass, where the actions or beliefs of one is seen to reflect that of all of them. A cyclist goes through a red light, therefore ALL CYCLISTS ARE BASTARDS. A feminist writes that all penetrative sex is rape, therefore ALL FEMINISTS ARE MAN HATERS. Neither cyclists or feminists are allowed to be a collection of individuals with different thoughts, actions, motivations, behaviours or ideas. But Cyclists are not one great big united homogonous community – they are people from all walks of life with all different backgrounds, ethnicities, lives, ideas, opinions. The only thing, the ONLY thing that all cyclists have in common is that all of them for whatever reason have chosen to occasionally go somewhere on a bicycle. Cycling is a method of transport, not a religion.  And feminists? Again, the only thing that ALL feminists have in common is that they all believe in, and advocate for, equal rights for women; and different feminist have different ideas on how that can be achieved, or what that means.  Feminism is an ideology, not a club.

Can you imagine this happening with drivers? Where we routinely assume that all drivers believe the same thing, or becuase one driver speeds, they ALL speed, and we should therefore stop spending money on roads? Or hear a man say “I don’t like Star Wars” and then go “MEN eh? they don’t like Star Wars. WEIRD right?”. Our whole society is structured towards cars being the “default” mode of transport; being normal and mainstream, and roads being FOR them. It takes a big leap for us to think that maybe roads could be structured for all people, all road users, rather than them being an afterthought, and that other transport methods could be *equally* viable, not just an ‘alternative’ or a ‘minority’. If you’ve ever tried to get to the Chingford Hobbycraft on the bus and had to cross the A12, you’ll know what I mean. Likewise, it takes a big leap to see how society treats white men as the ‘default’ gender, and women as a minority or as something “other”.

Male cyclists experience being “othered” in the same way that women do and so I’ve noticed that on many online cycling forums there seems to be a larger number of white men that “get” concepts like this in greater numbers than they do in other spaces. This is not to say that cycling communities are safe space havens full of white male allies – MRA on a bikethey can be just as exclusionary, frustrating and full of microagressions as all other spaces can be for women. But when calling out sexist behaviour, language or assumptions I have found a larger number of men defending me and supporting me in cycling communities than I usually experience in other male-dominated spaces. On more than one occasion I have gone in to a comments section all full of rage ready to challenge an offhand “women drivers” comment only to find large numbers of men already challenging the casual sexism. Male cyclists often have a better grasp of intersectionality than some feminists – recognising that there are more barriers to women getting on bikes, that women get both cyclists abuse AND sexist abuse (from personal experience, for example, I’ve been driven at and spat at and close-passed like many other cyclists, but I’ve also been physically groped, cat called and subjected to comments like “nice bike, I want to take you both for a ride” and “I want to be your saddle hur ur”).

Of course, one big difference is that a cyclist can just stop being ‘othered’ and join the world of the not-hated by just getting off their bike. Women can’t stop being woman for a day or two just to escape the daily grind of hatred. It would be interesting, I often think, if people who struggle to grasp the concept of privilege, oppression, sexism or othering were to ride a bike around in a perfectly safe and legal manner. I suspect they would start to appreciate the concepts pretty quickly.



*I originally misspelled this so badly that spellcheck thought I meant “psychotically”. I was momentarily tempted to leave it that way.



  1. Good piece, thanks. Interestingly though cycling is my main mode of transport (and has been for over a decade) and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced any of these personal discriminatory behaviours (actually, wait, except once when on the Naked Bike Ride). Maybe I’m just lucky? Or maybe because I don’t look like a typical cyclist (generally I’m travelling with a big rucksack, big coat, big clunky bike) and people have trained their hate towards them?? Obviously we all experience the infrastructural bias – I sometimes fantasise about making cars drive on the railway from time-to-time to see how they enjoy it – but on a personal level we may have to come up with something else for educating fit young white guys like me!

  2. As a Dutch feminist cyclist, I applaud this piece. It offers insight in an attitude that – thank god – I rarely encounter back home.

    “Constantly, over and over, it’s deemed the responsibility of the cyclist to behave in a way that will make sure a car doesn’t hit them, just as women are constantly expected to behave in a way to make sure a man doesn’t rape them.”

    In the Netherlands we have great liability laws protecting cyclist. Generally, it is assumed that any accident involving a cyclist and a motorized vehicle is the fault of the motorist, *even* if the cyclist did something that caused the accident, like making a sudden movement or turn or even running a red light. The idea is that erratic behaviour (to the point of running red lights!) should be expected from cyclists by motorists, and thus anticipated.

    I can imagine the outrage that such a rule would provoke if proposed in, let’s say, the UK. I’m sure it will “encourage reckless behaviour by cyclist” and cause them “to break all the rules” and that they’ll therefore basically “asking for being hit by a car” whereas in reality, yes, some cyclists in the Netherlands too are douchebags, but that still doesn’t mean that they’re provoking cars to hit them.

    I don’t need to spell out the rape analogy further, do I?

  3. I love love LOVE this, and thank you for posting! I live in the US in Portland, Oregon, and I write a blog about women and bicycles called The Fabulous Girl’s Guide to Inner City Cycling. If you are interested, this post would be a wonderful international perspective that I would enjoy re-posting, as I am always looking to expand perspectives on the topic. It is surprising yet strangely not surprising to read about so many similarities between our two countries. Many here have a skewed perception that Europe in general is full of stylish women on leisurely bicycle commutes. But the true situation you’re describing really does have a lot of commonality to what women experience here, and that is really important for not just bicycles but the world-wide feminist movement in general.

    Also, I love the tea analogy in some of your other posts. ?

  4. Re “I often think, if people who struggle to grasp the concept of privilege, oppression, sexism or othering were to ride a bike around in a perfectly safe and legal manner.” I don’t understand how this would help i.e. wouldn’t there be more chance of generating empathy for “the other” if these criminal types were made to “experience the infrastructural bias” (thanks Shaun) that people riding bikes in car-centric places have to endure?

  5. Yes. You are right about everything. Gosh.

    I do sometimes stop cycling for a couple of days to get away from it, and I worry about my daughters and wife who are brilliant and clever and funny and have to cope with this idiocy just for being themselves with no off switch.

    I’ve also read about how anti-cycling and jaywalking laws in the US are used to victimise minority groups disproportionately – a double hit because it’s the transport options disadvantaged communities can afford that expose them to law enforcement.

    And I wonder at how much all this stupidity costs us in lost opportunity, lost happiness. Even simple economic loss from things similar to Britain killing the genius Alan Turing for no reason. If everyone can get to where they’re going without being hassled, that’s going to benefit everyone. This is not a zero sum game – everyone benefits from equality and fairness.

  6. I’ve been pondering how to explain some of this for several years now – but I don’t have the words (or skill, etc). Thanks for this brilliant article.

    What I’d really like to find a way to record (or find an article about) is the thing about unreasonable rules that seem reasonable…

    I can tell already that I’m going to fail to express this, but it goes something like this: Powerful group sets up rules for less powerful group. Rules seem entirely reasonable to powerful group (actually being based around their needs when it comes down to it). Rules are actually unworkable from perspective of less powerful group. Rules in reality cannot reasonably be followed. Less powerful group members either give up, or break rules. Breaking rules demonstrates, in the eyes of the powerful group, that less powerful group is irresponsible (etc etc). Rule breaking buttresses stereotypes about less powerful group (in the eyes of the powerful group). Ill treatment of less powerful group follows. Ill treatment and prejudice mean less powerful group has little to lose by rule-breaking anyway. More rule-breaking follows. And as if by magic… “if only X group would behave reasonably… ” “they’ve only got themselves to blame” “you try your best and they throw it back in your face” “why is it that Y campaigners are always so negative when people try to help”.

    So in the case of cycling… if you don’t ever try to use a bike for utilitarian journeys it seems quite reasonable to expect that all ‘cyclists’ will obey all red lights, never cycle on the pavement, never cycle in a way that inconveniences people, never put themselves in risky situations, and so on. When you get on a bike it turns out that the world doesn’t really work the way that people think – and that no matter how you try you become a ‘cyclist’ ‘inconsiderate’ and basically an object of hatred. That’s an incredibly powerful thing to weather.

    Am I right?? Any chance you could write this up with as much skill as in the article above?? Have you come across this explained properly anywhere??

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