faster feminism · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · heavy-handed metaphors

Another feminist metaphor involving bicycles …

You know how a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle? Well, I was riding into the office on my bicycle just yesterday, and I was thinking, instead, how riding a bicycle in traffic is like being a female academic. Consider it!

1. If you don’t occupy the space you are entitled to, you will be run over. 

I have one big left turn to make on my commute. From a a multilane road, across a three-lane one way road, and then over a sidewalk which is actually the way you are supposed to access the bike trail. It’s complicated. They’ve just repaved and redone that whole intersection, and one of the improvements was to extend the bike lane right into the left turn lane. But you have to be pretty ballsy to do the right thing, and move right into that big bike turning lane. The thing that makes it safe is to really occupy that space, not skooch off to the side. Take your right of way, don’t waffle at the cars that are looking to figure out what you’re going to do. 

Similarly in the academy: you can be in the academy, but if you don’t “occupy your lane” you might easily get run over.

2. We are a minority; we have to act as a group because we are being judged. 

At that intersection? Many, many, many cyclists suddenly become pedestrians. They’re scared or impatient, trying to act like cars, so they suddenly move out of car traffic and start riding through the crosswalks and over the sidewalks, to shimmy their way through that ‘left turn’. When they nearly get run over, they yell at the cars and I wince: cyclists! You are in the wrong! And you are making drivers hate ALL bicyclists, and I myself want to run you over right now. Similarly in the academy: in direct proportion to women’s underrepresentation, the individual woman is judged as the exemplar of all. It’s not fair, but it’s true.

3. You need a voice. 

It is insanity to cycle in the city without a bell. In traffic it can recall to pedestrians that you are a vehicle and they should not jaywalk in front of you. It can remind cars that you are near them. On a mixed-use trail, you need to warn slower people ahead that you are behind them and about to pass. It is literally dangerous to not have a bell: someone’s dog meanders across the trail and you wipe out. A pedestrian steps onto the roadway and you are both injured.

Similarly in the academy: we all need to speak up for what is right, because if we don’t it’s quite rare that anyone is going to come directly solicit us for our qualms. If you don’t assert yourself, you may find yourself teaching at 8am on Friday until the end of time. Ring the alarm! It’s dangerous not to!

 4. We are in a minority; we need to behave better than everyone else. The stakes are higher. 

Cyclists face innumerable dangers on the roads, many from clueless or inattentive or hostile drivers. It’s all fine and good to occupy the moral high ground (“but I am entitled to three feet of the roadway, and it is the law that the car must find a way to get safely around me!) but if a car hits you, you are the one who dies. Cyclists need to be mor attentive, more aware of the laws, more deferential to the giant death machines, because we ar smaller, fewer, more vulnerable.

Similarly in the academy: women serve on too many committees, for equity purposes. We shoulder a disproportionate share of service work. Sometimes students want us to be their mothers. Sometimes sexism happens to us. We need to be vigilant and above reproach. It’s more dangerous.

5. Sometimes, the rules are not as clear cut as they might seem, and “equal” is not “the same.” 

Have you heard of the Idaho stop? It allows cyclists to roll through a four-way stop if there’s no traffic. It’s a law that recognizes that four-way stops are usually traffic-calming rather than safety measures, and that bicylces are not the problem there, and also that stopping and staring bicycles requires human power, not a tap of the pedals. To treat cars and bikes equally here means to treat them differently, on the basis of their different realities.

Similarly in the academy. Parental leave can be shared by male and female parents, but men don’t require pregnancy leave or lactation accommodation. Faculty who are parents require different supports from faculy who are caring for parents. We all labour under individual circumstances, and what is fair for one person might not be fair for another. It’s hard to create workable policy around that.

So there you have it. Ring your bells and let those wheels roll: the weather is beautiful, and all things considered, being aon my bicycle, even in traffic, feels pretty damn good right now.

8 thoughts on “Another feminist metaphor involving bicycles …

  1. This is a wonderful and, I think, apt analogy, and I must say the affective condition of being a cyclist (a combination of fear, anxiety, outrage, defensiveness, elation, self-righteous indignation, and sheer unadulterated fun) could absolutely describe my experience of being an academic as well.

    Also, further proof that feminism and bicycles were meant to be.


  2. This is a fantastic analogy.

    A friend of mine just posted on Facebook today about the Idaho stop (I'm pretty sure it's Idaho, not Iowa, but maybe both!), suggesting that we contact our local MPPs to try and get it implemented in Ontario. I'm firing off an email to Elizabeth Witmer right now.


  3. This is a very insightful, and painfully accurate post. Perhaps the reason I prefer to bike in the country (or really, horseback ride) may also be the same reason that I avoid being overly involved as an academic. I love the work, but I tend to focus on that instead of getting to know anyone. As a lesbian I tend to get the full brunt of tokenism. My personal life is on occasion forced into the public realm as a topic of conversation, even at professional events (I emphasize here, against my will). And I am expected to represent not only women, but queer women as well; I frequently feel as though I fall short. On a lighter note, however, this reminds me that I do need to get a new bike 😉


  4. That is amazing, I read that through and found myself nodding in agreement, then it struck me, I am terrified of being on a bike. I think I willleave it at that.


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