A few weeks ago I had an epiphany about women’s bicycles. That bar that connects the handlebars to the seat? It’s lower for a reason! You know the one I mean.
For years I wondered why they were ever different, but when I watched my friend neatly dismount her women’s bicycle by bringing her knees together and swinging both legs to the left through that otherwise pointless gap, I could feel my jaw drop. It all made so much sense!
Bicycles were invented as we know them today in the 1860s, and were designed differently for women to allow for any restricting clothing they might be wearing. In addition, since many women who rode bicycles also wore bloomers (much to everyone’s shock and dismay), it was intended to prevent the vulgar spreading of the legs as one foot swung back up over the seat. Even while showing her independence as a New Woman, seeking transportation without the aid of her husband or brother, a woman could still be graceful and dainty.
This fascinating piece on bicycles in the women’s movement of the 1890s informed me that there were even more concerns about bicycles and women’s sexuality! For example, women’s bicycles were changed even further by raising and curving the handlebars inward and widening the seat cushion to encourage a more upright riding position. By reducing the angle at which they sat, these “hygienic” saddles were intended to prevent any potential sexual stimulation (God forbid!!).
What’s fascinating to me is how these designs have remained to this day. Sure, rather than being the only option, these styles of bicycles exist as an option for consumers, and women certainly are under no pressure to ride a woman’s bicycle if they are competitive racers or are otherwise seeking speed. Though no one’s exactly sure why, there is a general vague knowledge that the bicycles with the dropped bar in the middle are for girls and the “normal” ones are for boys. Like most things of this nature, that is not really a restriction for girls if they want a “boy’s” bike, but boys certainly would never have a “girl’s” bike.
These days, the difference between products marketed to girls and boys tends to be their colors (check out these girls’ bikes and boys’ bikes being sold at Walmart!!), which are a bigger indicator of gender than the position of the center bar. Notice, however, that in the list of boys’ bikes, this design does not appear even once, where in the list of girls’ bikes, it pops up about every third bike. That means that even though most girls do not ride bikes in skirts anymore, nor is being dainty really an expectation, this design is still considered one girls will like and boys will not.
I’m all for having options in marketing, but until those options can be gender neutral, they’re only hurting us as a society.