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Putting Women at the Center

Perhaps the greatest power of bicycling is how we lose ourselves in the moment; how the pressures of daily life can wash away like a cool breeze through our helmets. But, as our work with Women Bike and Equity Initiative has made clear, despite that sense of freedom, we can’t disconnect bicycling from larger social realities.

That’s why we were particularly honored to welcome Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women (pictured right), to the National Women’s Bicycling Forum this month. While a proud owner of a canary yellow Brompton and frequent bike commuter herself, O’Neill emphasized that bicycling doesn’t exist in a social vaccuum — and to draw in more women, we have to flip the script of traditional advocacy.

Here at the League, the energy around women’s outreach has created the space to look at our work differently and begin to question some of our past assumptions and blind spots. It’s invited us to think more broadly about how to build partnerships that allow us to listen, learn and work effectively with the diversity of women and community stakeholders. O’Neill’s keynote remarks brought a new lens into focus.

For years, O’Neill suggested, the bicycle has been at the center of our analysis. We’ve been focused on how do we bring people to the bicycle. But the longtime women’s rights leader challenged us to turn that paradigm inside-out: Put women at the center of the analysis, she urged, and consider how to make the bicycle a smart, accessible, logical choice for her.

To do that, she continued, we have to understand the realities many women face. 

For instance, women still make up 2/3 of minumum wage workers in this country and are disproportionately concentrated in “care” occupations. How do we integrate cost and time constraints into our thinking and campaigns around bicycling?

When we think about getting more women on bikes, we have to consider affordable housing. If a woman struggling to make ends meet on an hourly wage has to live 10 or 15 miles from her place of employment, it may be impossible for her to travel by bicycle — even if she’d like to.

Even if we make streets better for bicyclists with protected lanes or improved infrastructure, we can’t forget that women are also disproportionately survivors of violence, adding more complex meaning to our efforts to address “safety.”

O’Neill’s message made me reflect on how often we position the bicycle as a “simple solution” — but still have a lot of work to do to recognize and understand the full scope of the challenges so many women (and men) face that complicate the potential benefits of bicycling.

O’Neill’s “putting women at the center” asked us to step back, to listen and learn, so we can understand how bicycles can be an asset to women from different backgrounds, rather than how more women can boost the bike movement. Her message also called on those of us in the bike movement to, when appropriate, partner with groups like NOW to improve the lives of women in ways that will make bicycling more accessible and appealing.

Our sincerest thanks to O’Neill for being part of the Women’s Forum this year, and we look forward to increased partnership with NOW in the future.

Photo of Terry O’Neill at the Women’s Forum by Brian Palmer

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