"Female cyclist wheeling bicycle up muddy hill on St. Clair Avenue West 1907" from City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1244, Item 0022
by Duncan Hurd
"Two legs, two pedals, a crank and a chain, two wheels and a frame. A revolution that keeps me arriving," sings Evalyn Parry to a group in Trinity Bellwoods park for the Women and Bicycles Picnic hosted by HerStoriesCafe.
Taking the group through the past 140 years, Brearton establishes a link between the early rise in popularity of the bicycle and the reforms that lead to greater freedoms and equality for women. Unlike riding a horse, where a woman could still wear a long flowing dress and ride side saddle, riding a bicycle required more practical attire. The rise of "bloomers," a style of baggy trousers, is directly connected to growing numbers of women choosing to travel by bicycle in the late 1800s. This reform in fashion provides the legs required to further the cause of equal rights activists while the bicycle provided their mobility, allowing women to freely move around the city, to meet, to discuss, to unite. As a result, early women's independence was asserted by the bicycle Brearton tells us.
With these reforms also came resistance; from doctors who felt that bicycle riding was too dangerous for the "weaker sex" and from opponents who believed that less constrictive clothing for women could lead to immoral behaviour. Nearly 120 years later and this opposition still exists today. In June 2011, a women was reportedly stopped on her bicycle by police in New York City and threatened with a ticket because her skirt could distract drivers and cause collisions. "Women have legs for use like anyone else," was a reaction to women riding bicycles in the 1880s shared by Brearton and is a sentiment we still seem to be grasping today.
Long skirts and heavy fabrics made clothing restrictive. "Yonge Street at Queen Street [1908?]" from City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1244, Item 493
Performing from her critically acclaimed show, SPIN, Evalyn Parry introduces our group to Annie Londonderry, the first woman to ride a bicycle around the world. A adventure undertaken by a bet, Londonderry's ride, as imagined by Parry, paints us a picture of a savvy self-promoter who occasionally bends the rules (and the truth) to achieve her goals.
Londonderry's travels can be seen as a mobile marketing campaign, one not only for bottled water and bicycles but also for women's dress reform. An ever evolving wardrobe, one borne of the need for better mobility, brings with it shock and outrage from conservative communities more than a century ago. “To be free, a woman needs mobility, she needs to use her legs, her legs, her legs, her political legs,” sings Parry.
Bringing us back the the present, CYCLOPS perform the song "Bells on Bloor," a call to action to continue the political push for practical cycling improvements. "The current and former representatives for the Toronto Cyclists Union are women. Many of the city councillors who push for cycling infrastructure are women," responds Brearton to a question about the ongoing connection between women and bicycle rights. The bicycle has been a tool for change for more than 100 years and in a time of rising gas prices and frustrating commutes it still has the power to change lives.
Evalyn Parry performs for the crowd in Trinity Bellwoods Park for HerStories Cafe, photo by Tammy Thorne
For more information on future events visit HerStoriesCafe.ca.