A Note on the Personal Choices Facing Women Who Bike

Women Bike Chicago 03/23/13

Editor’s note: After Michelle reported on the Women Bike Chicago Conference earlier this month, the Tiny Fix posted a critique of Cynthia Bell‘s advice to “not look too sexy” at a workshop on comfort, safety, and style. This is Michelle’s response.

The Tiny Fix article begins:

As part of a gang of female bikers, I should be … thrilled every time I hear about an event encouraging more women and girls to ride, right? But then sometimes I catch a little excerpt of something that takes all that “hey, ride a bike! It’s fun, it’s efficient, it’s good for you, and it makes you feel totally awesome” and turns it into something awfully patronizing and insulting.

Nadarine and Tiny Fix, thank you for bringing up this important issue. I’ll admit that as I sat taking notes on the event for Streetsblog, Cynthia’s words made me wince, because of the points you made in your post: Women shouldn’t have to tone down their clothing, look less feminine, and avoid drawing attention, because that makes bicycling seem dangerous, puts the blame on the victim, and in the end, it often doesn’t matter.

But you know what? I had the same reaction when I heard other topics brought up, and applied the same logic, to wearing helmets, wearing safety vests, and avoiding the criminal element.

I believe that the sight of widespread helmet use in a city is detrimental to encouraging bicycling because it sends the message that bicycling is a sport, it’s dangerous, and it requires special equipment. If a bicyclist is killed by a driver, the mainstream media often notes whether she was wearing a helmet or not – especially if she wasn’t – even if an SUV ran her over, and a little plastic on her head wouldn’t have made a shred of difference. The insinuation is: Didn’t wear a helmet? Tsk, tsk, she was asking for it.

I think that advocating for people to wear bright orange safety vests while riding their bike isn’t optimal because it puts the onus on the bicyclist to look clownlike in an attempt to be more visible, when the real responsibility is held by the people maneuvering their enormous motorized vehicles to look where they’re going.

I think it’s unfortunate that bicyclists (not just women, either) might have to ride on a stressful main arterial route and not be able to take quiet side streets because of the criminal element present in the out-of-the-way areas. So, we’re going to let violent people force us to choose between getting attacked in a quiet area, or having to mix it up with 18-wheelers on Western Avenue? And anyway, it doesn’t matter in the end even if you do choose the “safer” option, as proven by Allison Zmuda’s horrible recent experience on Milwaukee.

So, I understand Cynthia’s advice about toning down dress, in certain situations, in certain areas. It would be fantastic to live in a city where the incredibly safe bike lane infrastructure, enforcement of traffic laws, and widespread mainstream bicycling culture made helmets and safety vests completely unnecessary. But we simply don’t. It would be great to live in a city where there were no harassers lurking around, and where physical assaults were unheard of, and everyone could ride wherever they want, wearing whatever they want, without fear. But we simply don’t.

I hope no one is discouraged from supporting all the efforts underway in Chicago to address these issues, because we need all the help we can get.

  • Guest

    Thanks for your perspective on this Michelle. I can understand how some women might not appreciate the suggestion that they can avoid harassment and violence by dressing differently. On the other hand Cynthia deserves respect for all her great work promoting cycling in underserved communities, and for her refusal to let other people’s threatening behavior keep her from bike commuting through her own neighborhood.

  • Sarah Dandelles

    Excellent response, and agreed on the helmet issue as similar, though I wear one most of the time. It’s so great to hear all responses to this and other cycling-related issues – from *women.* The how-we-dress thing also reminded me of a the whole picture of perception, a la the “Mary Poppins effect.” In all, thanks, Michelle, for summing up how many of us feel in your 2nd-to-last paragraph. Women can make these changes happen in our city, but it will take concerted effort. Hoping we all continue to be on board.

  • Thanks for your perspective on this Michelle. I can understand how some
    women might not appreciate the suggestion that they can avoid harassment
    and violence by dressing differently. On the other hand Cynthia
    deserves respect for all her great work promoting cycling in underserved
    communities, and for her refusal to let other people’s threatening
    behavior keep her from bike commuting through her own neighborhood.

  • For those interested in the Mary Poppins effect, read Let’s Go Ride a Bike.


  • Thanks, Sarah.

  • Okay, I’ll bite. As both the author of the post that has been referenced a great deal regarding street harassment on bike and a feminist with a wide range of feels, I feel like I have a few things that I want to
    clarify and explain.

    If we’re gonna go in the business of analogies for the sake of our point, I am going to utilize a more salient example as to what street/sexual harassment equates to in a societal context. Sure, we can say that utilizing physical safety tools and equipment is the same as putting on another sweater to obscure one’s womanhood, but it is simply an argument full of holes.

    Let’s instead think of what is going on in our nation’s capital right now and the fervor behind it. Decades ago, the idea of moving towards civil rights for LGBTQ individuals (with a heightened focus on marriage) would have been unthinkable. But, and in the last ten years especially,evolution of social mores has occurred.

    Let’s examine why: 1.) more people coming out/making themselves and their sexuality both visible and non-negotiable, 2.) the promotion of pride events and publicized festivities that show prominence, strength, and sheer numbers, and 3.) the LGBTQ community is making it a point to influence the dominant culture and create a dialogue for themselves rather than be subject to what the dominant culture wants to assign to them as a group. There are more reasons to name, but I’d safely assign those to be some majorly important ones.

    Some additional features: there’s a reason why you don’t see data in criminal justice or sociology texts tracking things like what an individual was wearing before, during, or after they were sexually harassed or abused. A great deal of said behavior occurs in the home anyway, or occurs with a person that the victim is familiar with. It shows that this pattern of behavior is learned, and it shows that this idea of being a random girl on the street in a short skirt that simply became a victim is more myth than reality. There is, however, concrete data showing correlation to a significant lack of self-esteem in men that sexually harass. Oftentimes, they are being propped up in their views on how to treat and regard women by sexually aggressive peers and they are not being educated differently by others on an institutional (home, school, community) level.

    So how do you defeat a lack of knowledge, especially one apt to spreading in a social sphere? You talk back to a guy about why it isn’t okay that he whistled at you and that you felt disrespected. You keep some form of protection on you that you are not afraid to use, so that there is an understood strength. You take on public spaces (a la Slut Walks) to show that you are going to be who you are, and dress how you feel, and seek out your autonomy and utilize your freedom. You influence dominant culture. You make art that says what it is and isn’t acceptable regarding treatment across gender and sex. You write, you share, you create, you determine, you define, and you make distinctions. YOU TEACH.

    You’re not educating a person to break that pattern of behavior by playing to it.

    At this point you have to decide which side you’re on, and whom it supports or caters to. If the ideal is to be in solidarity with women and to be in tandem with the progress that asserts us as individuals or on par with men—for full equality and the privileges therein—then support other females and the decisions they make, and support the throwing of “acceptable” standards and unhelpful social norms and mores tied to submission so as to avert the male gaze. That gaze isn’t going anywhere, but let’s make sure there’s respect that is forced to grow behind those eyes, and stop propping up the power that already exists there.

    And for the record, I am going to keep wearing my skirts and keep wearing my helmet—because the negotiating tools I use regarding either don’t even have to do with the same part of my brain.

  • Thanks for the feedback Lauren.

  • I studied sociology for undergrad before moving on to transportation planning. I took a lot of gender and sexuality classes. I’ve pretty much avoided including these topics of self-identity in discussion about transportation on Grid Chicago and Streetsblog Chicago, except when it comes to the terms “bicyclist” and “pedestrian”. But those are nowhere close to the discussion we (you and Michelle and the organizers of the Women Biking Chicago conference) are bringing forth.

    I’m glad for that.

    That conference, and groups like yours (Tiny Fix Bike Gang) are absolutely essential to building a bike culture in Chicago (and cities across the country to ensure the right TEACHING is happening.

  • Lisa Curcio

    I seldom wear skirts when riding my bike, but only because I don’t like riding in a skirt. I am too old and too conservative to worry about dressing “too sexy” and when I was younger I was just too conservative. I was around early in the “women’s lib” movement, and it distresses me that the societal attitude toward women has changed very little. I have a position of authority and responsibility, and there are still times when men address me as “dear”. Lauren and your generation: You Go! It will not change if women sit back or try to adapt to avoid the problem.

    On the other hand, Cynthia is doing incredible and difficult work, and the culture in which she sometimes must function is more regressive than many of us have ever had to deal with. Give her credit for finding a way to do what she does.

  • Jennifer

    Perhaps instead of talking about Cynthia’s presentation it would be wiser to reach out to her about her advocacy work. Commentators here and on the other blog seem to have little history advocating on the West Side and Far South Sides of Chicago.
    Few of us habitually need to ride daily in an environment that is essentially unsafe at all times- the murder and violent crime rates in the areas where Cynthia works are extremely high. She has valuable insight into working in communities most advocates do not.
    Volleys between privileged women who can ride in places that are for the most part extremely safe in comparison might benefit from insight into the barriers faced in underserved and extremely dangerous communities. I’d love to see a good interview from with Lauren or Michele with advocates who live the daily experience of riding in places that are unsafe and totally underserved– or who need to be responsible for the advice they give there.

  • Jennifer–here’s where you also assume and are incorrect. I have a social worker and educator background. I consider myself a woman of color as a Puerto Rican female even though I pass outwardly as white. The majority of work I have done in this city since moving here 5 years ago is with brown and black folk. As I commented on Tiny Fix blog, I have worked in Austin and North Lawndale and have commuted to communities on the regular to visit the population I currently work with. I shouldn’t have to trot out the credentials, but you also shouldn’t assume.

  • I agree and do not intend to slight Cynthia as a person, or Cynthia’s work. At all. I just wanted to bring clarity around where the dissent was coming from on behalf of Tiny Fix, and that mostly has to do with not propagating an ideology that ultimately is detrimental to women.

  • Jennifer James

    No Lauren I am not assuming that you are not a woman of color.

    I am assuming that you wrote a piece on a sound bite and seems to speaks to a whole presentation, person who is an advocate, and conference. I take your point that you work and ride in communities that are unsafe as well but I doubt you have outworked Cynthia or have any idea what she does. I don’t think advocacy is a contest.

    Your commentary about Cynthia’s presentation takes a short piece of her presentation out of context as well.

    I think calling out other women or our conference when you don’t know that much about the presentation or the conference isn’t about women, advocacy, intellectualism
    or sexual politics.

    I suggest in my comment that both Tiny Fix and Streetsblog stop talking about Cynthia’s presentation sound bite and perhaps actually interview her. I suggest in my comment that instead of three white people- four including me and I guess you who passes, talking about another advocate why not dig deeper and generate a more whole conversation with them about their own work.

  • Intensely out of touch. I was actually at the conference in a volunteer capacity and spoke about how to better strategize in the future to get more women of color to attend it. You can keep saying what you want, but also do not include me in your figure of “white women”. It seems you do not know how this works or what I meant when I said passing; that does not take away my experience or my heritage and it is a joke to assume otherwise. This wasn’t all about Cynthia–as multiple folks have attested now. This is about the ideology behind those remarks (on the cusp of a very relevant street harassment situation that actually occurred to a female cyclist in Wicker Park that engaged a lot of feelings, myself included). If you can’t understand that, then there’s no more for me to explain to you. And with that, I conclude my involvement in this thread.

  • Here’s our interview with Cynthia about her work with the Better Blocks Program: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2013/03/25/picturing-safer-streets-the-better-blocks-initiative/

  • The right teaching is definitely a matter of perspective and personal circumstances, as demonstrated by the variety of opinions here. In many of the south and west side neighborhoods where some of us ride, safety and survival override an ideology of personal style.

    It would be nice if we lived in an ideal world where we could dress however we want with no fear of harassment. We’re certainly not living in that world, or a world where drivers respect us 100% of the time and give us all the space we need. In areas where cyclists are a relative rarity, simply riding our bikes can attract abuse, especially when we’re often riding alone, without anyone to watch our backs.

    Unlike women in near north or northwest ‘hoods with large bike communities, we on the south and west sides of Chicago may not have ride buddies nearby who are going the same way. If I’m going to ride with friends from Blue Island, West Pullman, Chatham, Gresham or Avalon Park, I may ride 3-5 miles before I even meet up with them. If I’m meeting someone in Hyde Park, it’s more like 9-10 miles, and I may need to ride on streets like Vincennes to get there.

    I appreciate the fact that Cynthia gave street smart survival advice, which is needed in neighborhoods where anyone (male or female) may have safety concerns. Until we have moved beyond the rape and violence culture that is so ingrained in our society, I don’t feel it’s appropriate to give the advice that dressing however you want without respect to situational context and related risks is a wise approach. One size does not fit all.

    When cycling in the most challenging areas, the bottom line goal is to get where I’m going in one piece without any incidents that require police assistance. Until our society has evolved beyond a culture of rape and violence, I won’t advise anyone who has to ride alone in hazardous areas to do anything that could attract any more hostility or aggression than they might already get just for riding a bike. I’d rather fight my battles against that culture in other ways.

    When I’m riding my bike on the south side, the battle I choose to fight is for cycling to be an accepted and safe way to get around for anyone – regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or race. Our Major Taylor Trail rides, Jane’s Blue Island kids’ bike club, Red Bike & Green, Major Taylor Cycling Club Chicago and other local efforts are getting more people riding, including more women of color. When there are more cyclists on our streets, we can watch out for one another, and then we can take it further.

  • One of our goals with this event was community building. Aren’t we better off and stronger as a bike community if we’re working together instead of attacking each other?

    I may politely agree to disagree with some of you, but I’ll also acknowledge what we have in common. Whether or not we share all the same ideology, isn’t our common goal the acceptable of cycling as a form of transportation and the ability to use our bikes to go where we need to go? We may take different roads to get there, but that’s where I’d like to see us end up. Along the way, your mileage may vary.

  • Anonymous

    I agree. It’s pointless to devolve into negativity and tit-for-tat here. A major focus of the event was to get women to feel more comfortable about riding their bikes and to build community.

    When we were planning the conference, we consciously wanted to address the issues that face women who ride in more difficult conditions–and safety is frequently an issue for women, and especially for women of color. We also wanted to specifically address some of the barriers that women give to riding (“what about my hair? How do I look presentable when I ride? Do I have to wear spandex?” etc). Cynthia rides all over the city for her job, which requires her to give presentations and gather consensus. She seemed like a perfect person to present on the issue of dress, “beauty,” safety and the bike.

    I know that we are all supportive of Cynthia. We all want to see more women riding. We want to see more women of color on bikes. We want to see more women at all ages of life riding bikes. We want to see our city as safe and rideable as Copenhagen.

    Let’s work to make those changes happen!

  • I honestly don’t remember what I meant by “right teaching is happening” anymore. I’ve edited my comment to say “that teaching is happening”.

    That there was a conference just for women in Chicago is what I’m supportive of.


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