This is not an International Women’s Day tribute

The Internet reminds me that today is International Women’s Day. It’s a day when many of the sites I frequent will highlight the accomplishments of prominent women, or pay special tribute to participants in various aspects of the bike world who are women.

This is better than nothing, I suppose, but seeing these posts is always a bit depressing. After all, most of these women are not doing work that relates to gender at all — they are city planners, racers, advocates, and movement leaders, and I know that many of them work hard to avoid being pigeonholed in this way by their gender. I am glad to see good people being recognized, but it bums me out completely to realize that the need to do so in this light still exists. It’s a reminder that women’s pay, recognition, and ability to get things done in the world is still hampered by the lens of gender.

I started writing about the gender divide in bicycling because I felt like my head would explode otherwise. I’d rarely felt the need to think about sexism during my involvement in activist and advocacy circles, but a year and change of brushing up against the worlds of sports, industry, and journalism while working as managing editor of Jonathan Maus’s excellent BikePortland had gradually but inevitably turned me into a raging feminist — with rage being the applicable word.

One of the last articles I wrote for that site was a recap of some of the events that built up that rage. When published, it enjoyed a prolonged web traffic spike and much commentary. Jonathan’s parting advice to me was to keep writing about gender — it seems I’d stumbled on a niche.

It was good advice, and I’ve followed it, writing (and soon to be speaking) about sexism and gender disparities in the bike world, and giving an overt feminist label to my publications, including this blog and my print zine series.

The danger of being branded as a “lady writer” or spokesperson for “women’s cycling” didn’t occur to me until it started happening. My passion and focus is bicycling, and I write about many topics through this lens. When the topic happens to be gender, I think of it as a sub-topic of economics or culture — not as an entry into the culture wars or, so help me, identity politics. But gender is what keeps coming back to me, and it does seem that it sometimes — though not always — overshadows my more prolific writings on other topics.

On the one hand, I embrace this. Gender is a topic that needs to be discussed, and I am not embarrassed to say that I approach my work through a feminist lens. But on the other hand, every time I am introduced or approached with gendered language, or my attention is drawn to a photo gallery of bicycling women or anything at all about bicycling and fashion, I feel the need to immediately go and write something about transportation funding politics or the economics of bike parking. But back to that first hand, if I were to avoid the topic of gender, I suspect that it would not be helpful to either the movement or my career. To ignore gender discrimination — in bicycling and writing — would simply maintain it.

More recently, I’ve made the discovery that there are other ways to influence the culture than by shouting. Once you know how to spot overt sexism, it’s easy to see it everywhere. But it took me much longer to see the subtle distinctions in my own behavior. A year ago, when I was working primarily as a journalist, I noticed that most of the sources in my articles about non-gendered topics were male, and I decided to interview women first and foremost, only reverting to a man when he was the sole expert, provided the best story, or was the only person available.

This practice quickly led to the realization that men were the ones presenting their stories and perspectives to me most forcefully and the ones that I tended to gravitate to most naturally — even though there was just as likely to be a woman sitting quietly at the back of the room, or asking me questions about myself, who had an even more compelling tale or idea. I had to make a conscious effort to reach out beyond what was handed to me, which felt at first like a strange kind of discrimination or affirmative action — the same discrimination with which I had previously been, without realizing it, applying to the advantage of men. I have no idea if anyone has noticed this practice, or if it has subconsciously influenced anyone’s assumptions about who is an expert and whose story is worth telling. Time will tell, I suppose.

I also have kept writing about gender discrimination outright. This is partly personal — I see these things and I am obsessed — and also because the positive response to the topic is so strong. The gender gap needs to be addressed, in all of life, not just bicycling. The conversation clearly needs to be loud, and my goal is to inspire people to think, write, and talk about it until the day comes when it is no longer necessary.

My goal in calling attention to the sexism built into our culture, landscape, and economy is not to tear down some construct of a macho bicycle establishment, or to create a divide between men and women or allies and non-allies, but to open up and demystify a topic that is often too heavily loaded for reasonable discussion. I do believe that the gender divide in bicycling, particularly the more machismo-fueled aspects of it, is harmful to everyone, men and women alike. Likewise, I believe that the solutions to the gender gap — better infrastructure, more awareness of how streets and events are and are not welcoming — will to be universally helpful rather than divisive.

My questions on International Women’s Day is: What else can be done to constructively break down the gender divide, in cycling and in life?

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5 Responses to “This is not an International Women’s Day tribute”

  1. Alicia Crain March 8, 2012 at 5:22 pm #

    Hi Elly!

    Thanks for doing what you do. I bring up gender on a near-daily basis and I’m constantly shocked that most people don’t ever think that women have much different experiences than men. While I was on the Bike Advisory Committee, we women were 4, maybe 5, out of 20. By serving on the New Member Selection Committee I made sure that ratio (as well as that of whites to people of color, which was 20 to 0) increased dramatically when I left at the end of 2010. That was one group of people who really did not get that they were representing only one perspective – white and male (mostly likely 100% straight, too, but we never discussed that).

    I’m likely headed to South or Central America in September to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. As I prepare for this, I have had to come to grips with potentially having to dramatically change my appearance – grow my hair, wear long sleeves to cover a tattoo (of bikes, no less!), and wear skirts – just because I am a woman who does not conform to gender norms/stereotypes. It’s maddening, but I’m willing to do it because I have skills and expertise to share with the world and maybe I’ll have an easier time joining a community because I am a woman. And then there’s the potential of sexual assault..something the Peace Corps is well-known to have major difficulties in addressing in a way that reduces incidents. I can’t help but wonder, if men were being sexually assaulted at the rate that women are, would our society, indeed all societies, do more to stop it?

  2. SheCyclesNairobi March 9, 2012 at 1:26 am #

    Elly you are doing a great job with your writing. I love your honest flow. I began cycling in motor-crazy Nairobi, Kenya in November 2011 after spending several years in irritatingly slow traffic. I have began documenting my experiences and want to start documentation of my experiences using the new road system coming up in Nairobi as well as the old. Hopefully it will get more women to have courage to cycle.

    Roads here do not have designated lanes for cyclists. There are more pedestrians and motorists than there are cyclists. Development in these parts is signified by road networks for motorists and the number of cars registered annually and monthly. I am hoping that by 2030 (the new development goal post), the city of Nairobi keepers will see sense and make provisions for cyclists.

  3. Sam March 11, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

    I relate to a lot of what you wrote here. And I do love the fact that you are writing about bicycling from both the gendered and from the economic angle and I think you do a fantastic job of bridging that gap (which I think has existed for a long while). Going with the analogy of the decade, I consider this to be a 1%/99% issue. By and large most men I encounter (the 99%) are nice, supportive, smart, other-nice-words. The 1% is the group that tends to have a stickiness in my mind and they can truly be pretty obnoxious. I think what has helped me a great deal is coming from the Computer/IT world where some of the men were truly reprehensible and every day felt like going into battle. I checked out of programming because I didn’t want to fight a feminist battle – I decided to let someone else fight it, it just wasn’t worth it to me and I enjoy programming as a hobby anyway, so its not like that has been taken away from me.

    I have a lot of mostly unresolved issues around things like “Women’s Day”. For one, the fact that we have such a day pisses me off because it highlights the fact that we are unacknowledged to begin with and now we get one shitty little day. Well thanks but no thanks. I want every day to be a celebration of women.

    Re: discrimination. I think it both exists and doesn’t – depending on context. For example, a lot of the heat I deal with – I don’t assume it is because I’m a woman. I assume that I would get the same if I were a man. I also know that hard fought battles is what gives me this level of confidence because I’m in a privileged position that should a man (assuming he isn’t too wealthy and influential) harms me physically – he will be in a worse hell than if I did the same to him. To me the greatest injustice we face in this country is more monetary based and not as much gender based. Money talks and it talks loud.

    I look at women such as the Kamala Harris (AG of CA), Indra Nooyi (Pepsi CEO) and many others and see that they crashed past the glass ceiling and are holding their own, quite well and sometimes way better than men. I’m not sure their gender played a role as much as their confidence, intelligence, assertiveness and power gained from rising up the hierarchy.


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