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Chicago’s “For Women Only, Duh” Rides Create a Safe Space for Female Cyclists

Women hang out before a Chicago FWOD ride last August. Photo: Jean Khut

In recent years there has been a growing awareness of street harassment as a livable streets issue because it impacts individuals' ability to freely and safely move about public space. The nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment defines this phenomenon as "unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent and is directed at them because of their actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation."

In 2014, the group released the results of a study in which they surveyed 2,000 individuals, including people from the LGBTQ community. They found that 65 percent of women experienced street harassment and/or sexual assault. Of that subset, 23 percent were touched in a sexual manner, 20 percent were followed, and 9 percent were forced to do something sexual.

Chicago-based groups are also combatting harassment and assault in public spaces. There's the Courage Campaign, which focuses on harassment on the CTA, and Good Night Out, which addresses the issue at nightlife venues. In the local bicycle community, couriers from the Women’s Bike Messenger Association joined forces with the food delivery company Cut Cats Courier to produce a PSA in which female messengers speak directly to those who would catcall or grab them at work.

There's currently a major gender gap in U.S. cycling -- at last count less than a quarter of bike trips were made by women. However, bicycles have long been associated with women’s rights -- the invention of the bicycle gave women new freedom to travel independently. The folks behind Chicago's "For Women Only, Duh" bike rides believe in carrying on this tradition by encouraging women to use bicycles as freedom machines to take back public spaces from would-be street harassers.

A local FWOD ride gets rolling. FWOD Chicago
A local FWOD ride gets rolling. FWOD Chicago
A local FWOD ride gets rolling. FWOD Chicago

The FWOD rides originated in Oakland, California, in 2004 as a response to a mustache-themed, male-dominated bike ride. In effect, the group created a "safe space" for women, where they could enjoy biking and hanging out with other cyclists without having to deal with harassment or sexism. In addition to cisgender women, trans women and gender non-conforming people are encouraged to participate in the FWOD events. There are chapters in cities across North America, including New York City, Denver, Milwaukee, Toronto, and Montreal.

Sarah Johnson co-founded FWOD Chicago last April with the goal of creating a similar safe -- and fun -- space for local women who bike. She received encouragement from her friend Savanna Tracey, who helps run the Oakland chapter. Johnson is a former Cut Cats rider who helped create and appeared in the anti-harassment PSA, and she now works at a tech company. The Chicago rides meet on Wednesdays at 6:30 during the warmer months at a hill near Kedzie and Hirsch in Humboldt Park, and weekly meetings are continuing throughout the winder.

I caught up with Johnson to discuss her experience as a Chicago cyclist and courier, including run-ins with street harassment, the response FWOD has gotten from the greater bike community, and her advice for people who want to create additional safe spaces for women on bikes.

Jean Khut: What’s been your experience as a woman in Chicago’s cycling scene?

Sarah Johnson: Oh man, I could write a book. I've had so many crazy experiences, good and bad. I've met some of my best friends through cycling and messenger jobs, and I feel strong and independent as a cyclist. But I've also had to deal with Chicago's mean winters and motorists. I've been on 12-hour delivery shifts during the polar vortex. I've had people reach out of their cars and grab me, stop next to me at a light and say they're going to rape me. I've been hit four times. But I still get back on my bike every day. It's empowering.

JK: What's an average experience like on one of the weekly FWOD rides?

SJ: Ha, there isn't an average experience! During our first two months it stormed every week. So we would just go to people's houses and eat snacks and make crafts. There were usually 8-12 of us, and we thought that was amazing. Now sometimes we have 30 people come to the hill. It's insane. We try to mix it up, going to the beach or to go get ice cream. Snacks are definitely a consistent factor. We usually just chat it out at the hill with a few ideas and decide together what to do. It's really less about the ride and more about making time for our friends and creating the safe space.

JK: How has the Chicago cycling community responded to FWOD?

SJ: For the most part people are really on board. Most of the dudes are really stoked for us and want to help however they can, while being careful to not intrude on our space. We've also had a few fools telling us that we're a sexist group. [Our response is to] laugh and tell them to educate themselves. And there was even one guy who said he was going to make FWOD patches and wear them around, putting some other stupid acronym on there. So, yeah, a little backlash from a few dummies, but for the most part, [people have been] overwhelmingly supportive.

JK: What advice do you have for other women who want to start biking on city streets, or already ride and want to form a safe space for other women cyclists?

SJ: My advice [for inexperienced cyclists] is to ride often with friends to gain confidence on the road, know your rights, and [learn] when you should stand up for yourself and when to just let a crazy driver go away. As far as starting a group, my advice is to just do it. It took me a few months of sitting on the idea of starting FWOD Chicago before actually getting it started. Women need spaces like these -- it's so important.

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