March 28, 2008

Sexed Bicycles

Stupid Question ™
June 21, 2001
By John Ruch
© 2001

Q: Why are there different bicycles for boys and girls? And why is the boy’s bike the one with the bar in an anatomically dangerous place?

A: The modern practice of sexing bicycles is one big irony. Originally helping to emancipate women, it has now become an unnecessary way of branding them.

The “girls’ bike,” of course, is one in which the crossbar—the top bar of the bicycle frame—is tilted at around a 45-degree angle. This is called the “drop frame.” It was designed specifically to accommodate women.

The “boys’ bike” is really just the standard bike design—“male” equaling “standard” in a patriarchal culture.

By the way, bicycle injury surveys show that the crossbar is rarely directly responsible for injury to any part of the male anatomy. The rest is just castration anxiety.

Bicycles became popular in the 1870s. At first they were “high-wheels”—those weird things with one huge wheel and one teeny one. They could reach 6 feet in height. Women of the day, trapped in gigantic skirts, couldn’t hope to ride one even if public sentiment allowed them to dabble in mechanical things. Which it didn’t.

Nonetheless, a few women rode them anyway, wearing only bloomers. Thus began a 20-year association between bicycling and feminism.

The bike as we know it dates to the late 1880s. Originally, it was a “safety” model of the high-wheeler, with the big wheel put in the back so it wouldn’t tip over as easily. Then technical advances made the chain drive possible, so both wheels could be the same size. The modern bike—and the bike craze of the 1890s—were born. And women made it clear they wanted in on the fun.

As early as 1888, “ladies’ bikes” were being made with the drop frame to accommodate skirts. There were other innovations, too, like belt- or shaft-driven chainless models that kept skirts clean and untangled. (Male bike champion Marshall Taylor rode a drop-frame driveshaft model, by the way.)

Plenty of women also simply rode standard (aka men’s) bikes, wearing short-skirted “bicycle suits” or, if they were really radical, short-legged Knickerbocker pants.

Conservative critics were outraged; feminists like Susan B. Anthony were delighted. Meanwhile, the bike was giving women unprecedented mobility, and helped bring an end to corsets and long skirts.

Eventually, all American bike makers had “sexed” lines. The name switch from “ladies’ bikes” to “girls’ bikes” came around 1918, when the automobile took over American transportation and the bike became mostly a children’s toy.

When adult biking became popular again in the 1970s, renewed feminist sentiment mostly killed “ladies’ bikes.” But in kids’ bikes, the separate designs and gender terminology remained—in fact, the standard model was now explicitly a “boys’ bike.”

Girls haven’t been expected to wear skirts since the 1950s; the drop frame exists mostly as an arbitrary gender distinction. Originally a way to make adult men and women closer in opportunity, the sexed bicycle is now a way to keep boys and girls distinct.

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