“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.” Susan B. Anthony
On Sundays in Mexico City, Laura Bustos Endoqui wakes just before dawn. She grabs a quick breakfast and slides a water bottle into her backpack. She buckles on her helmet and in the early morning light, opens her shed which houses her bicycle cart. The cart, designed by her father, can carry up to three bicycles safely, and that’s important when she is peddling through traffic.
Every Sunday morning, for several months now, Laura has taken her bicycles downtown when car traffic in the downtown core is restricted so people can exercise and bike around the capital. The problem is that many women in Mexico do not know how to ride a bike.
Laura didn’t know how to ride a bike either, even though she worked for the city’s bike sharing system. The first time she tried it was dusk and raining and she almost broke her hand because she had no idea how to ride, and even less idea on how to fall, safely. Now a year later, she confidently maneuvers her bike and her bicycle cart through the streets to downtown. Laura is the founder of ‘Te enseño a andar en bici’ or I Teach You How To Ride A Bike program. It is an unlikely program in a city known for its maddening traffic and pothole-ridden streets. Biking is not the norm for many females, in this macho culture where males whistle the inevitable catcalls as they cycle by. With 80% of the bicycle riders in Mexico being male, Laura wanted to do something for the environment, and something for her fellow female commuters. “Girls were never taught to ride a bike at home, only our brothers,” she says. “Some other girls were over protected by their parents, who felt it was too dangerous for females, worried they could get hurt”. So Laura decided to as she says, “To add my 2 cents”, and started her ride a bike program that teaches women to get up on a bike, and experience life from that perspective. Laura’s star student Leslie Garcia Arzate went from never being on a bike and terrified of peddling to using the city’s rent a bike program to commute and just get around the city.
In Mexico, the perception of riding a bike is changing and it is now considered the cool thing to do by the youth of the country. Conquering the city on two wheels is great for the environment and congestion where hours are spent in cars commuting through the vehicle clogged streets. But the ride a bike program is doing more for Mexican women on a much deeper level. The bicycle has throughout history been regarded by the women’s movement as a “Freedom Machine”.
For women just north of the Mexican border, there are over a hundred and twenty five years of bicycle history, and its profound role in the changing history of women in that country. In fact, the cycling trend of the 1890’s is inextricably intertwined with the women’s movement. Riding a bike was not easy for women in the beginning. The original bicycles were difficult to handle due to their huge front wheel, which made mounting extremely difficult, steering an athletic feat, and many riders in accidents doing headers over the front handle bars.
As bicycles evolved and became safer and easier to mount and ride, cycling popularity exploded with women. A new breed of woman was making her mark, just as bicycles became more common as prices decreased and ease of use increased. These modern women saw themselves as the equal of men and the bicycle helped assert their independence. These women were already breaking convention, working outside the home, and becoming politically active with the rise of the suffrage movement.
Cycling not only gave them physical mobility but it broadened their horizons beyond their own neighborhood in which they lived. They found a new form of freedom as the cumbersome restrictive layers of Victorian clothing were cast away in favor of more practical rational forms of dress. The large billowing skirts and corsets started to give way to bloomers and divided skirts- the culottes of today. The cycling craze did more to reinvent the modern woman’s clothing than any other trend, and it also readjusted women’s relationship with garments. Sarah Gordon, an American historian, comments, “At a time when mainstream women rarely challenged fashion’s dictates, the novelty of sports offered an opportunity to rethink women’s clothing.”
Once hidden under yards of fabric, women cyclists quite literally shed their old skin and emerged as “new women” able to exert themselves on a bicycle properly dressed for the activity and still retain, if not enhance, their femininity. Myths started circling that cycling was bad for women’s health with the fragility and the sensitivity of the female organism being a common theme. Advocates for women shot back that no one complained when women worked ten hours in factories, stood all day in poorly ventilated stores or bent over sewing machines for pennies a day, but as soon as these sedentary women found a cheap and invigorating way to exercise in fresh air, everyone started harping on their physical welfare.
Cycling had forced the women’s rights gauntlet to be thrown. Mastering a bike was a metaphor for women finally holding some mastery over their lives. On a bike, women no longer had to depend on anyone for transportation. She was free to come and go as she wished. She also experienced the thrill of speed. That physical rush was heady and new for these women who were first encountering a form of parity with their male counterpoints.
Francis Willard was one of the most influential women of the day in the US. She was one of the leading suffragists and founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union which had a mass following. At 53, she taught herself to ride a bike, saying she wanted to help women to a wider world, to have them experience adventure, and develop a love for this new implement of power.
Back in the streets of Mexico City, Laura’s oldest client is learning hand signals as her bike wobbles a bit and then steadiest itself. At 60, Rosa is Laura’s oldest client, seven years older than Francis Willard was. Rosa has watched her grandchildren riding their bikes, and wants to share the experience. Mexico is long past the hoop skirts and restrictive corsets, but in many ways, it is just experiencing the “Freedom Machine”. America was never the same. Mexico is long overdue.
Leigh Morrow is a Vancouver writer who operates Casa Mihale, a vacation rental in the quaint ocean front community of San Agustinillo, Mexico. Her house can be viewed and rented at www.gosanagustinillo.com