Words by Sadhbh O’Shea | Photo by SWpix.com
It is often said that consumer behaviour is what will force organisations and corporations to make change. In recent weeks fans of women’s cycling have put their money where their mouth is with two fundraising campaigns.
One aimed to ensure equal prize money at Strade Bianche and the other sought to get television coverage for the Healthy Ageing Tour. Both succeeded and showed a depth of passion that is often dismissed and continued a fine tradition of campaigning for progress within the sport.
Social progress for women has been inextricably linked with the history of the bicycle. It provided them with independence and even played a part in bringing to an end the practice of wearing hugely restrictive clothing such as corsets. Even now, in 2021, the bike continues to liberate women around the world.
In her 2011 thesis called Cycling and women’s rights in the suffrage press, Christine Neejer wrote that “cycling was an inherently political practice by many women activists in the 1890s” and it was “ultimately a meaningful and practical way [women] could challenge Victorian gender constructs and implement women’s rights ideology in their everyday lives”.
As long as there has been a bike, there have also been women racers defying the social preconceptions and going against the grain. In her book Queens of Pain, Isabel Best recounted some of those early rebels who defied sporting convention and set women’s cycling on course towards what it is today.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, trailblazers such as the Swedish Tillie Anderson and Italian Alfonsina Strada showed that the idea women were physically incapable of sport were wildly wrong and set the stage for their successors. Progress would remain painfully slow and the first women’s stage, an idea that had existed for half a century for the men, did not come until 1955.
In Britain, the first national road race championships did not happen until 1956. It was organised by the Women’s Cycle Racing Association, which had been set up seven years earlier by British rider Eileen Gray. The rider from Bermondsey was a driving force for change in women’s racing, beginning in the 1950s, and never accepted no for an answer.
Women’s world records were finally recognised during the late 50s and the UCI sanctioned the inaugural women’s world road race championships, after years of pressure by Gray and other riders, in 1958. Nearly 30 years later, in her role as the president of British Cycling, Gray would also play a key role in a women’s road race finally being included at the Olympic Games.
The path of progress in women’s racing has rarely been a straightforward one and some of those successes gained would later be lost but the core of women’s racing had been established and it wasn’t going away.
More recently, the Le Tour Entier movement, set up by Emma Pooley, Marianne Vos, Chrissie Wellington and Kathryn Bertine in 2013, has helped push the conversation around parity for women’s cycling into the mainstream. It may not have achieved everything it wanted, though the return of a women’s Tour de France stage race seems so very close to becoming a reality, their petition and the media conversation that ensued created the platform for the growth that has followed since.
The creation Cyclists’ Alliance, led by Dutch former rider Iris Slappendel, in 2017 was another major step for the sport. Despite the UCI neglecting to recognise the organisation, Slappendel and the rest of the team have held it to account and forced progress in a number of areas, including safeguarding and contracts.
As it was in those early days, progress has seemed slow at times but debates about gender equality in cycling are becoming much more common place. People arguing on social media about how they think the sport will best grow might not seem like progress, but it is. It has led to two successful campaigns that have helped show of women’s racing and the strength of passion behind it.
Doors may be opening more easily but there are still many more to open before it’s time to sit back and look upon what has been achieved. Women’s racing must also look within itself for improvements. While the battle for gender equality is gaining speed, the fight for racial equality is one where the surface has barely been scratched. Meanwhile, parity for transgender women seems like a distant goal at this stage. If we want equality for women then it must be for all and not just some.