Why we need a women’s movement in bicycling

In the wake of the 3rd annual National Women’s Bicycling Forum in DC last week, there’s been some buzz online—does it make sense to have a separate women’s event? Does it help or does it segregate? Is the women’s forum the reason that the ensuing National Bike Summit was largely populated and led by white men? Does having a separate event mean women are accepting “separate but equal” status? Or is it empowering? Or a little of both? A lot of folks are talking about this, and with a lot of uncertainty.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. What do you do when a community or movement you love isn’t working? More specifically, when it isn’t working for you and for other people like you? And when this is a problem not just for the folks who are excluded, but for everyone who’s kind of stuck in a rut and missing out on the ideas and leadership new participants have to offer?

I’ve felt this way at times in the bicycle movement. I’ve also, at times, felt exhausted from fighting the battles that one fights in such a situation—to be heard, to be credited for your work, to stick up for each other, to always be the one to speak up when someone says or does something appalling… and then to have the old familiar arguments afterwards.

Joe describes it best, though in the context of the publishing industry, in which he has walked this talk with admirable success:

You can join something and change it from within.

Or you can fight it, defining yourself in opposition to it.

Or you can start your own version, in parallel—building it from the ground up and getting it right, creating a counter-example that the original alienating thing itself will, if it intends to survive, eventually end up emulating.

I have mad respect for women in bicycling who’ve chosen the first two paths. Their work and sacrifice is a big part of what’s created the freedom, support, and community that have allowed me and many others to veer off and create something new and different. What’s more, I have no doubt that there’s already someone out there reading this who thinks my work is a little stodgy, not radical enough. That’s great. Onward!

But the path I’ve chosen is the parallel one. And that’s what I hope will happen with the National Women’s Bicycling Forum. What if it became the main event, and bicycle advocacy heading into the future was primarily led by diverse women with a grassroots ethos? It’s entirely possible, since both events are organized by the same people at the League of American Bicyclists. So why not? If we want the movement to stay relevant and become more effective, that’s where the shift will happen.

Beyond that, I hope that by carving out spaces to build a new culture in parallel we can test new ways of doing these things. When they work, they’ll become the new normal.

To help grow the women’s bike movement even more, I’ve launched the Wheelwomen Switchboard—an online space for women worldwide who are involved in bicycling to connect with each other, share knowledge and resources, and build a stronger bicycle movement. In two days, it now has nearly 100 users on four continents who have posted (and responded to) 23 asks and 13 offers. If you identify as a woman and as someone who is in some way into bicycling, you’re invited to join and post—welcome!

I don’t mind at all that, by total coincidence, the Switchboard HQ folks invited me to walk through the setup process on International Women’s Day.

Let’s build this thing and do it better. For everyone.

Tags: , ,

3 Responses to “Why we need a women’s movement in bicycling”

  1. Kelley Westenhoff March 9, 2014 at 7:48 pm #

    I couldn’t get through the snow to get to the Forum, but managed the Summit. It was disappointing. Although everyone talked equity issues, when we broke out for sections, all of the colorful interesting people ended up together, and white men with money and contacts self selected to be with us. Ugh. We gotta come up with a better strategy.

    Thanks for the switchboard!

  2. Janet March 9, 2014 at 8:24 pm #

    My take is that the recent influx of women is bringing a different viewpoint and set of priorities that was unheard before on any bike advocacy stage and it doesn’t bother me that we have a separate program focused on those voices. It’s not that there weren’t women in the movement before, but there either weren’t enough to have “critical mass” to be heard for our distinct needs. Or in some cases, perhaps the women had concerns and interests closer to the predominantly white male leadership.

    Now I’m starting to hear much more than the typical “bike to work” emphasis, from the needs of parents in terms of family-friendly routes, and from women in terms of infrastructure that serves shorter in-town errand trips, not just longer work commutes.

    And I’m seeing this effect not only at Women’s Summits, but in my state’s bike summit as well (CA). The programs of the traditional bike advocate were joined by new programs serving women, people of color and other previously underrepresented groups. And everyone seemed perfectly comfortable, if not pleased as punch, with the new balance of power.

    Then again, maybe the old timers just didn’t show up. But we certainly did.

  3. Carolyn Szczepanski March 10, 2014 at 1:19 pm #

    Love this debate– Thanks, Elly! Here’s my take on why we need the #womenbike Forum http://bit.ly/1i5UdT0

Leave a Reply