As the celebrations got under way for this week’s International Women’s Day, I led 20 women in tweeds, sizeable Edwardian hats and scarves on a Suffragette bike tour of Manchester, organised by transport charity Sustrans and Manchester Bike Tours.
It was a great opportunity for a big group of women on bikes to be visible on the roads, and we received lots of shouts of support, mainly from women and girls along the route. We visited various significant heritage sites, from Emmeline Pankhurst’s house to the Gallery of Costume which has an example of some of the first women’s bloomers, invented to allow women to cycle. Then onto Alexandra Park, the scene of many suffragette rallies.
Generally, female cyclists represent a minority when it comes to biking and research shows that fears about safety on busy roads puts off many women – and men. New research from Sustrans shows that only one in four cyclists are women, which is surprising given that the bicycle has long been associated with women’s freedom and the suffragette movement.
“Many a woman is riding to suffrage on a bicycle,” wrote Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1895, while in 1905 Miss Morley said in The Penny Illustrated Paper that “the bicycle has done more than anything else of a humbler kind to revolutionise modern women’s life”.
Sustrans’ own Bike Life survey last October confirmed that many women still don’t feel safe on the roads. They interviewed more than 4,000 people in Greater Manchester for the Bike Life Survey, but less than a third of those who said they cycled (31 per cent) were women. Most people (8 out of 10) said that if the roads were safer they would definitely get on their bikes.
As the founder of Team Glow, an all-women’s cycling group in Manchester, and a former competitive track racer in a male-dominated sport, it’s a subject close to my heart. By making women more visible on the road, we hope to change attitudes about cycling, and inspire other women to get out of their cars and choose a healthy, green travel option.
I’m sure that if more money was spent regularly on creating and maintaining better cycle lanes and slower speeds, many women would reclaim the bicycle as their preferred mode of transport. In cities such as Copenhagen, where bike lanes and other facilities separate bikes from traffic, more women cycle than men.
More cycling on our streets isn’t just good for those on their bikes, it helps create calmer, safer communities which are better environments for children and elderly people too.
I’ll be leading other rides during March as part of a series of events to encourage women to get cycling in Transport for Greater Manchester’s Women on Wheels programme.
We hope the suffragettes will come out again in Manchester, and perhaps other cities, to encourage more women to get on their bikes and to highlight the need for more investment in cycling. If you would like to join in, please get in touch with me.
If you would like to join the campaign for more investment please write to your MP using the form on Sustrans’ website.
Glynis Francis is a lifelong cyclist, feminist and community activist
Photo credit: Livia Lazar/Sustrans