Suffragettes: The Film, The People, The Bicycles

If you’re reading this then my guess is that cycling is a significant part of your life, that you appreciate it’s enormous benefits and that it would be difficult for you to conceive of a world in which your access to cycling was anything other than a routine norm. For some your bike offers a simple means of enjoying the daily commute, for others there’s the added benefit of long weekend rides while for others cycling has provided us with a network of invaluable friendship and support. 

While the primary purpose of our cycling will be different for each of us, cost saving for some, excercise for others, therapy for others, socialisation for still others; the reality is that why ever we ride we are often showered with unexpected benefits. 

This two wheeled machine has a strange way of creeping into the depths of our being. 

Yet the cold truth is that many of us never even think about the wonder of cycling or it’s profound role in society. 

Over a hundred years ago an extra ordinary lady by the name of Alice Cooper broke the rules of society when she donned a pair of trousers and rode her bicycle around the streets of Liecester. Her struggle and the struggle of her comrades is powerfully narrated in the recently released Suffragettes film

For Alice and many others committed to the struggle for women’s emancipation their riding a bicycle was not only a powerful symbol of emerging independence and self-reliance but also a deeply practical tool enabling speedy travel between meetings, rallies and protests.  The bicycle was not an ideological claim but a real physical manifestation of change. The bicycle demonstrated what the suffragettes were for while mobilising a movement against the norm. 

Of course society still has rules, norms and deep inferences, forces which too often collide together dictating that the car is king, obesity is just an unfortunate side effect and we cyclists are nothing but a pesky nuisance. 

The witness of Alice Cooper ought to remind us to keep on being the irritant with a glimpse of something so much better than this. 

Irritants who hold our local authorities to account for their lack of investment in cycling infrastructure. 

Irritants who take time to share with others a freedom we love. 

Irritants who ride in the road because that is where we belong and are safest. 

Irritants who save our health service an immeasurable fortune and ought to be able to lock our bikes in the places we live and work. 

Irritants who will not accept that thousands of low paid women spend up to a quarter of their income on high carbon mobility because the current road structure feels too unsafe for the daily commute to work.

When the lack of enforcement surrounding traffic laws, the aggression of male drivers and our local school’s failing to spend its allotted budget on suitable bike parking means that my daughter finds cycling to school too difficult; I can’t help but wonder if Alice Cooper would be saddened by how little progress we have actually made. 

In a world where high tech cycling gear is measured by the gram and all too often disposed of in the blink of a passing season it is worth pausing to remember a time when courageous souls rode heavy pieces of steel towards an often uncertain future. Because they could.

Such women are a gallant reminder that progress is not about waiting for politicians to come up with a good idea it is about doing something, anything, what ever we can because we can.

Such women as Alice Cooper also bear witness to the truth that progress is never the result of complaining or of opinions, both of which are cheap and boring but of action even when that action is costly. A note worth remembering when teaching your niece to ride might interfere with your training schedule! 

There are no doubt thousands of women whose lives continue to bear witness to the power of the simple bicycle; young women for whom cycle maintenance training has provided a pathway back into employment, participants of British Cycling’s Breeze program who boast of huge benefits to their well being and hundreds of thousands of women whose daily commute involves two wheels, one saddle, oodles of freedom and a huge sense of personal satisfaction. 

Enjoying the film will be easy (although I’m not sure ‘enjoy’ or ‘easy’ are appropriate terms for a film of such serious substance). I suspect that building a truly inclusive cycling future will be much more difficult. May we not leave such a task to the bureaucrats and the politicians but search always for the Alice in our midst. 

Onward.