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This Bicycle Kills Patriarchy

Francesca Bessey |
July 19, 2014 | 10:07 a.m. PDT

Senior Opinion Editor


They say the revolution will not be televised, but in Los Angeles, it is also important to note that the revolution will not arrive by car.

One, the revolution would probably never get there. Two, Angelenos have already named another form of transit as their liberator: the bicycle. At least that’s the case for a burgeoning subculture in the L.A. biking community.

In the past few years, dozens of organizations, events, blogs and programs have cropped up throughout Los Angeles to promote women’s cycling as a means of personal and community empowerment. For these women, cycling is at once necessity, recreation, political statement and sport. It gets them where they need to go, but it also opens doors to places they haven’t yet been. And as more and more women step over the threshold, it is beginning to change the face (the scruffy, white male one) of L.A. bike culture and of the city at large.

I set out to discover: what is this new face of L.A. cycling? And how can the bicycle be a force for liberation and for change?

"I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel… the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” (Mwanner, Wikimedia Commons)
"I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel… the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” (Mwanner, Wikimedia Commons)

Pantaloons, Petticoats And Bicycle Face: Early Bike Feminism

The idea of the feminist cyclist isn't a new one. In 1896, American women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony told the New York World that the bicycle was the greatest feminist technology of its time.

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling,” she said. “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.”

READ MORE: In Highland Park, Bike Oven Cooks Up Community

Indeed, during Anthony’s time and continuing today, bicycles gave women a new measure of mobility, and therefore independence. Bicycles also came into fashion at a time when prevailing societal notions that women should be physically inactive were being widely challenged, and played an important role in late Victorian-era dress reform, which called for simpler, more comfortable clothing for women to engage in sport. 

The late 19th century bicycle was evidently so successful at challenging gender norms that it prompted backlash from the medical community, who argued that cycling was an excessively taxing activity for the “weaker” sex, and would lead to all sorts of health problemsincluding exhaustion, insomnia, heart palpitations, headaches, depression and a dastardly cosmetic condition known as “bicycle face.”

Quite to the contrary, today’s women’s cycling collectives and advocates embrace the bicycle as a means of staying active while balancing the stresses of family, work or schoola benefit that takes on special significance in a city teeming with food deserts and concrete. But cycling has a lot more to offer women than just keeping them physically healthy. In L.A., female-identified riding crews are changing the way women relate to their bodies, their communities and the often hostile world around them.

Stone relief of Coyolxauhqui, uncovered at the Templo Mayor. (katiebordner, Creative Commons)
Stone relief of Coyolxauhqui, uncovered at the Templo Mayor. (katiebordner, Creative Commons)

“Ovaries so big we don’t need no balls!”

In Aztec mythology, Coyolxauhqui, eldest daughter of Mother Earth and leader of the southern star deities, conspired to kill her mother to prevent the birth of Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. But the infant Huitzilopochtli was warned of her plot and, at the moment of his birth, killed and dismembered Coyolxauhqui, tossing her head into the night sky to make the moon.

The dismembered Coyolxauhqui, most famously rendered in the large stone relief uncovered in 1978 at the base of the Templo Mayor, is for some a metaphor for the exploitation of women throughout history and, in particular, of indiginous women under European conquest.

But for the women of the Ovarian Psycos Bicycle Brigade, Coyolxauhqui is not so much a symbol of what they have suffered, but of what they can overcome. Established in 2011 in response to a perceived “lack of sisterhood” within communities of color in L.A., the Psycos—or the Ovas, as they are known—are a Boyle Heights-based cycling and social justice brigade for female-identified women of color.

READ MORE: Strength In Numbers: L.A.'s Fearless Cyclists

A sense of sisterhood is what Alejandra Ocasio was seeking when she joined the Ovas back in 2012. Now a member of the organization’s leadership committee—the Core Collective—Ocasio sees the Ovas as an opportunity for women, who are often expected to see each other as competition, to build solidarity with one another.

“We get to flip the script where we’re expected to compete with each other, you know, throw shade on each other,” she said.

The Ovarian Psycos, however, isn’t just a sisterhood: it’s a movement—to empower women of color to take back the streets where they have been made to feel unsafe and to heal the disadvantaged communities from which they come. Espousing “feminist ideals with indigena understanding and urban/hood mentality,” the Ovas organize monthly social justice-themed bike rides at the full moon, provide a space for community groups at their Boyle Heights headquarters, “La Conxa,” and host an annual ride for female-identified, queer and gender non-conforming individuals in L.A., affectionately known as "Clitoral Mass."

Each full moon ride is tied to a particular community issue and usually involves a partnership with an outside organization. Past collaborations have included jiu-jitsu training, bicycle mechanics classes from the Bici Libre workshop space and delivering free vegan meals via bicycle with Comida No Bombas Los Angeles.

For the June ride, participants gathered in park in Los Feliz to share stories and speak out about street harassment, a recurring problem for female pedestrians and cyclists in urban environments. A representative from Hollaback, a non-profit working to combat street harassment globally, discussed response strategies and introduced the Ovas to an app that allows users to document, map and share incidents of street harassment when they occur.

“We were able to walk away not feeling alone or ashamed about some of the experiences we’ve had,” Ocasio said of the evening. “Some of the women had never shared anything like that before.”

 

 

If you visit the Ovarian Psycos website today, you will find it decked out in anticipation of L.A.’s third annual Clitoral Mass, a womyn-power spin on the monthly Critical Mass rides that take place in cities around the world.

After a year of preparation, Ocasio and the Ovas are looking forward to the most successful Mass yet. True to their community creed, the Ovas have placed considerable importance on participant feedback in planning this year’s ride—meaning the 2014 Clitoral Mass will take place earlier in the day to accommodate women with families, and will start and end at the same place to allow for easier and safer travel home.

READ MORE: Taking Cycling And Public Transit Mainstream With Maria Sipin

The ride meets at 1:00 pm on Aug. 16 in DTLA’s Grand Park. Participation is free and open to all women-identified folk. The organization is also calling for volunteers of all genders to help facilitate the event. Water, snacks and toilet paper will be provided; you need only bring your friends and your ride.

Female-identified cyclists at the annual "Clitoral Mass" ride in Los Angeles. (Ovarian Psyco-Cycles, Facebook)
Female-identified cyclists at the annual "Clitoral Mass" ride in Los Angeles. (Ovarian Psyco-Cycles, Facebook)

C U Next Tuesday (Night)

When Susannah Lowber came to L.A. in 2009, she found a burgeoning bike culture unlike any place she had lived before. The city’s numerous cycling cooperatives, workshops, advocacy organizations, events and enthusiasts were “like a family” and Lowber developed a particular affection for the high-speed Monday night “Hustle Ride” organized by Wolfpack Hustle.

But there was one thing missing in Lowber’s urban cycling paradise: women.

“Most nights, maybe one or two women would show up… and a lot of men,” she says about the Hustle Ride.

READ MORE: Hundreds Bare All For World Naked Bike Ride, Los Angeles

Lowber’s experience is mirrored by L.A. cycling statistics. According to the Bicycle Findings & Recommendations from the 2013 L.A. Bicycle and Pedestrian Count, the popularity of cycling in greater L.A. has increased dramatically, with ridership up by 7.5 percent since 2011. However, women accounted for just one-fifth of bicycle ridership in 2013, and were even less likely to ride in the conditions characteristic of the Hustle ride: on streets without bike lanes or pathways.

Lowber, however, felt that women would come—if given a comfortable and safe space where they could take their sport seriously. So one night in June of 2013, she got a few friends together for the first ever "C U Next Tuesday" Ride, an all-women night hustle through the streets of L.A.

As their numbers grew, it didn’t take long for the Tuesday night riders to start racing together too. They also gave themselves a name: the She Wolf Attack Team, or SWAT for short.  SWAT built a community that was simultaneously supportive and fiercely competitive. But rather than feeling pressure to compete among themselves, to be the best woman rider, as they might in male-dominated environments, Lowber says the women of SWAT push each other to be the best riders they can be.

“A handful of us met on the old Wolfpack rides and if you were one of the women there, it was almost like everyone was expecting you to slow down the race,” says Lowber. “As members of SWAT, however, “we went from being opponents to wanting to train together.”

Lowber describes today’s SWAT as a sort of “co-op club,” in which the members compete together and coach themselves. The group, whose membership has grown to include nearly 30 women, continues to host C U Next Tuesday rides and to encourage the development of community in women’s cycling.


Looking Forward: Pedaling A Revolution

Along with the SWAT and Ovarian Psycos organizations, opportunities are abound for women in L.A. looking to tap into cycling’s barrier-busting power. Interested souls can check out the Bodacious Bike Babes, another all-women’s bike crew, or “Bicycle Bitchen,” a weekly women and transgendered-only night at the Bicycle Kitchen repair and education space. L.A. is also home base for several women’s cycling blogs, including “The Bird Wheel” and “Braking the Limits.”

READ MORE: L.A. Cycling: Benefits, Challenges And A Vision For The Future        

Of course, the future of “untrammeled womanhood” doesn’t end in Los Angeles. Women’s cycling crews and organizations can be found in most major cities in the United States, as well as many around the world. In fact, feminism on two wheels is not only growing globally—it is making a difference in some of the world’s most dangerous and difficult places to be female-bodied. In the upcoming documentary “Afghan Cycles,” director Sarah Menzies follows the Afghan Women’s National Cycling Team as they challenge social barriers and “pedal a revolution.” Making good on their philosophy that “mobility = opportunity,” the Bicycles for Educational Empowerment Program by World Bicycle Relief has provided thousands of bikes and riding lessons to students (70 percent of them girls) in rural southern Africa, leading to increased attendance, academic performance and safety during travel to and from school.

SWAT and the Ovas are young organizations, relatively speaking, but they were conceived in a legacy of women’s liberation that dates back to the 1890s. The organizations are changing the way people think about bikes, who rides them and where. 

Today, perhaps, cycling is your hobby, maybe even your passion; but imagine if tomorrow, it became your credo. Imagine the bicycle became your non-violent revolution, your symbol of freedom, your affirmation of your right to pass safely through the public square. Imagine the bicycle was your last stand for the promised city of angels, a means of connecting its estranged boroughs without a trace of smog. 

These may not be the convictions of your given woman cyclist. But every time she takes to the streets, there is no doubt that she is an agent of superhuman change.

“With a bicycle,” said Lowber, “I can climb to the top of a mountain and be like, yeah I totally did this by my own power.” 

Because a woman on a bicycle is greater than the sum of its parts.

 

Contact Senior Opinion Editor Francesca Bessey here; follow her here.



 

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