The American civil rights leader Susan B Anthony wrote in 1896 that the bicycle “has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world”. She rejoiced, she said, every time she saw a woman on a bike, a “picture of untrammelled womanhood”.
How times have changed. These days, only one in every 250 teenage girls gets to school by bike. And just one in four cyclists generally are women.
According to research by the An Taisce-funded Green Schools Ireland, one of the top reasons women don’t cycle is “intimidating behaviour from teen boys and men”.
A Morning Ireland vox pop captured this recently. “More than half of the time I get boys and men shouting at me, and it just makes me feel really uncomfortable and really inferior… It’s as if they have a superiority complex over us because we’re women,” one student at secondary school told RTÉ’s education correspondent, Emma O’Kelly.
A debate erupted on social media over this. Lots of people suggested that the solution to making cycling more appealing to schoolgirls was to let them wear trousers. For the record, I think mandatory skirt-wearing is a ridiculous, archaic imposition on anyone. Girls get cold legs in winter, just like boys. Girls like to climb on to walls, just like boys. And girls – presumably just like boys, not that boys have to give this much thought – don’t enjoy having their underwear exposed on a windy day. Or on a bike. Of course girls should be allowed to wear trousers, just like boys. And boys, if they wish, should be allowed to wear skirts, just like girls.
But skirts have very little to do with why girls aren’t cycling to school. Others suggested they should be taught to shrug off harassment or take it as a compliment. “Thank the perverts,” one woman suggested on Twitter. (No, please don’t.) Some people doubted that the harassment was happening at all. One man said he had been cycling for 35 years and had never seen it. (Well, you wouldn’t mate, would you?)
The solution should not involve getting girls to moderate their behaviour by not wearing skirts, or by campaigning to change their school’s uniform policy. It shouldn’t involve them being told to grin and bear it. The behaviour that needs to be moderated is the behaviour of the boys and men routinely harassing girls and women.
For some perspective, I called a friend of mine who has some experience of the issue. She cycles to and from the train station daily, and then to and from her office, four days a week. Of the 16 bike journeys she makes weekly, she calculated that she is harassed on about 10 of them.
Harassment – whether it’s catcalling, a beep of your car’s horn, or a leer out the window – is not a compliment
The harassment rarely involves words. It’s most frequently a beep. Sometimes, it’s a pointed look, “a big, stupid, dirty smile”, and a hand gesture, like a thumbs up. The worst, she says, is when the car slows down as it passes, and the driver leers at her out the window. Because then she not only has to deal with the crude sexual suggestiveness at 7am, she has to worry about the fact that he’s not watching the road while he gawps like an imbecile.
“They think this is some sort of sexy interaction,” she says, incredulous. “It’s half seven, it’s foggy, or it’s wet, and I’m just trying to get to work.”
Why do women experience far more harassment on a bike than men, or than women walking on the street? She suspects that being “inside that capsule” makes the harasser feel invincible, and the sight of a woman on a bike brings out some latent rage. “Being a female cyclist, you’re made to feel subhuman,” she muses.
Women cyclists seem to suffer from a double whammy of vulnerability. They’re not just “do-gooder” cyclists; they’re “do-gooder women cyclists”and, for some men, that’s at least twice the reason to harass them.
When was the last time this happened, I wonder. This morning, she says.
Street harassment of cyclists is a problem for all of us. We are in the midst of a climate crisis. Our roads are noxious and gridlocked and, frankly, far too terrifying for most of us to contemplate navigating on two wheels. If people like my friend are brave enough to do the ecologically-sound thing, we should do them the courtesy of keeping a distance, and not aggressively appraising their arse while we’re passing.
Something is broken in our society if girls and grown women are holding themselves back from a healthy, wholesome activity like riding a bike because it’s not worth the constant, low-level, soul-sapping hassle.
I’ve said this here before, but it’s worth saying again. Harassment – whether it’s catcalling, a beep of your car’s horn, or a leer out the window as you pass – is not a compliment. It is never intended as a compliment. It is always, and only ever, a reminder of the power gap between the harasser and the person on the receiving end. And that gap is never wider or more lethal than when one of you is in a car and the other on a bike.