Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
The stir caused by New Zealand minister Julie Anne Genter’s journey to an Auckland hospital says more about us than her.
Congratulations to Julie Anne Genter, New Zealand’s minister for women and associate minister for health and transport, who made global headlines this weekend for riding a bike to have a baby.
Specifically, Genter biked to Auckland City Hospital on Sunday to give birth through induced labor. In an Instagram post, she wrote, “My partner and I cycled because there wasn’t enough room in the car for the support crew... but it also put me in the best possible mood!” she wrote.
Beautiful Sunday morning for a bike ride, to the hospital, for an induction to finally have this baby. This is it, wish us luck! (My partner and I cycled because there wasn’t enough room in the car for the support crew... but it also put me in the best possible mood!) #42weekspregnant #cycling #bicyclesarethebest
New Zealand’s Green Party, of which Ms. Genter is a member, tweeted that her ride to the hospital was “the most #onbrand thing ever.” The New York Times, Buzzfeed, ABC, and other international publications swiftly picked up the story. “Pregnant Woman In New Zealand Rides Her Bike To The Hospital,” was NPR’s headline.
But why did Ms. Genter’s Sunday ride cause such a stir? Sure, it was ballsy. But she’s hardly the world’s first woman to make news by taking an unexpected bicycle ride. In fact, this is a very old media trope. “The woman on the wheel is altogether a novelty, and is essentially a product of the last decade of the century,” wrote Pennsylvania’s The Columbian newspaper in 1895. “She is riding to greater freedom, to a nearer equality with man, to the habit of taking care of herself, and to new views on the subject of clothes philosophy.”
Indeed, when the first chain-drive “safety bikes” hit cities in the 1880s, women seized on an unprecedented chance to move at will. Bikes quite literally loosened up restrictive skirts and corsets, and became symbols of women’s rights movements gaining steam in the U.S. and Europe. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are both credited with proclaiming that “woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle,” a line that was printed again and again in turn-of-the-century media. Bikes could take you anywhere in a era when the front yard was the limit of respectable independent travel.
Newspapers were horrified by the sight of gender liberation. “I think the most vicious thing I saw in all my life is a woman on a bicycle,” wrote one writer in an 1891 edition of Washington, D.C.’s Sunday Herald. Doctors worried that too much brow-furrowing while riding—“bike face”!—would mar female beauty. Bikes rattled women’s innards, they said, and threatened their chastity by awakening sexual impulses. But the ladies rode on—and not just rich, white ladies riding to prim luncheons, either, but women of color and working-class women too, competing in races, commuting to jobs, tending to family members, holding rallies. Women rode not to cause a stir, generally speaking, but because riding served their purposes.
That seems to be why Genter took her bike to the hospital on Sunday, too—and the ride wasn’t all that daring. The brief one-kilometer trip was “mostly downhill,” according to her Instagram post, and she made clear that she was not actually in labor while en route. (The bike involved was also a battery-boosted e-bike.) But the world still stood to attention, as if this constituted a feat of supermom-ish strength. There’s often shock at seeing pregnant women doing just about anything other than being pregnant; even in highly educated, rich countries, the myth persists that women should refrain from physical activity while carrying children. And it’s still a big deal for any national leader to be female, let alone have a kid while in office. Only two sitting world leaders have ever given birth; New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, became the second in June, after Pakistan’s then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1990.
Pregnant or not, urban cycling is widely perceived as dangerous in many North American cities, due to the lack of safe infrastructure and critical cycling mass, but that’s less true in Auckland, where years of dedicated bike lane expansions have won over a rising share of commuters.
The fact that so many of us marveled at Genter’s ride says as much about the gaps society has yet to bridge related to both women and bicycling as it does about her particular gutsiness. If the right supports are in place—as they often are for men—having a child does not need to diminish a woman’s ability to steward a country, a company, or her chosen life path. Nor does it mean she needs to give up the tools and activities that get her there. Not every mother who could ride a bike to their delivery would choose to, and that’s perfectly fine. But what stands out more about Genter’s story is how outlandish her choices appear to the world, nearly a century and a half after women first rode for change.