Women and bicycles (but no fish)

I’m going to talk about something a bit mundane but important. Accessibility. This is something I’ve been learning a lot about over the last few months. But before I do that, I’m going to talk a bit about cycling, and then try and link it all together in a clever way (you can tell me if it works or not).

There’s a great book by Ann Oakley, veteran feminist researcher, called Gender on Planet Earth (2002). She starts off by setting up an analogy between being a woman and being a cyclist. Being both a woman and a cyclist myself, I was quite excited by this idea, which is quite simple: roads are designed for cars and motor traffic, so cyclists have to negotiate systems which don’t really take them into account very well. This means that many cyclists do illegal things to keep themselves safe and visible, or have to improvise as they go along in order to figure out what route to take, because there is no clear path for them to follow.

Image of a cycle path painted on a road with a metal fence running the length of it, dividing it in half

Oakley suggests that being a woman in a society where most institutions are built around the male as the norm is a bit like being a cyclist on roads designed for cars. I love this analogy – the idea that you have to fight for space on the road, you’re expected to just fit into the structures that are already in place, and that it’s really awkward, frustrating and dangerous. (And then there’s the suppressed report by Transport for London which showed that women cyclists are more likely to be killed on the road in London than men because women follow the road rules – so, being a woman AND a cyclist is doubly dangerous).

So, back to accessibility. I’ve had the privilege of organising monthly discussion groups for Feminist Action Cambridge since we set ourselves up in April, and part of this is finding venues. We started off smoothly in the Humanitarian Centre which, thanks to two fabulous feminist members of the group who were working there, was free AND it was accessible for wheelchair users. This was in line with our general policy of being open to anyone who’s interested – trying not to be cliquey or closed in any way. (And accessibility shouldn’t even need to be pointed out as being necessary).

So things were great for the first few months – honeymoon period and all that. Then the Humanitarian Centre got in some engineers who were using the room all summer so we couldn’t use it. The search began for cheap, accessible, central community venues in Cambridge. Well, it’s a frickin nightmare. We used Newnham College for a couple of months – thank you Newnham – but as it was part of the university, it’s not really a community venue and that puts people off, we feel.

We’ve now moved to Romsey Mill, a lovely, friendly accessible venue which isn’t very central, but there was just nowhere that was accessible, central, cheap and available. But then talking to people about accessibility I came to realise that it’s not just about having a lift. In order to be able to use the life, you’ve got to be able to get into the building, there’s got to be parking nearby, and a half-decent properly-wide footpath leading up the entrance. It’s not Romsey Mill’s fault, but it’s pretty hard to get to the entrance there. Hrumph.

So, the grand denouement: you’ve probably picked up on the link here between being a women/a cyclist/differently-abled – we’re all trying to fit into structures that weren’t designed for us. It’s an obvious point which has been made many times before, but I’m repeating it because (being a sociologist) I think it helps us think in terms of the way structures – physical, psychological, institutional, or whatever – get in the way of us being able to do what a ‘normal’ citizen is supposed to be able to do. – the ‘normal’ citizen being cis-male and able-bodied. Women have to negotiate masculine norms of competitiveness, confidence, lack of provision for childbearing and caring responsibilities in most career structures… even the school day is designed in a totally ridiculous way for people who have jobs. And there are plenty more examples – add your own ideas in the comments!

Now I should put some jokes in to reward you for having read this far, but instead I’ll just finish with another picture of a ridiculous cycle lane.

Image of a very short cycling lane which begins and then ends about two metres later

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3 Comments on “Women and bicycles (but no fish)”

  1. rachelette says:

    For what it’s worth I think this analogy totally works! To the ‘ways the world is built around men and women have to be squashed in as an afterthought’ list I’m tempted to add ‘language’ – so often it can be really hard to talk about gender equality, domestic and sexual violence, harrassment etc because there literally aren’t the words – we have to try to express ourselves in man-made language which restricts what we are able to say and doesn’t allow us to fully describe our feelings and experiences, or try to make up new words which then sound clumsy and complicated.

  2. kirstente says:

    I really love the cyclist analogy!

    One thing – it might be a good idea to add in image descriptions to make the blog more accessible for people using screen readers.

    • KM says:

      Accessibility is something we forgot to talk about when we met up to talk about running this blog, d’oh! I think the basic guideline is “all information presented in images should also be available in text form”.

      The usual thing with images is to add alt text to the tag, as radtransfem did, but if the person posting doesn’t want to muck about with html tags, I think it’s also fine to just put an image description under the image as part of the text of the blog post.


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