An old, Victorian-era article warning women against cycling struck Natalie Frijia.
But first, some context: Ms. Frijia, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, has been on many endurance bike trips that would break the (lower) backs of most riders, including an obligatory Halifax to Vancouver tour seven years ago on her burgundy Norco Cabot, a full-on touring bicycle with panniers, a triple front chain ring for steep mountain passes, the works.
Shorter jaunts have included Calgary to Vancouver, Banff to Vancouver (“I had the wind at my back the whole way, it was like sailing,”) Belize City to southern Guatemala (“I’ve never felt more safe than when I was camping in Belize.”) Her next trip, schedule permitting, is to bike tour around Tasmania.
Let’s just say she has put in considerable miles.
It was during the cross-Canada trip when she came across the article from the 1890s, supposedly written by a medical doctor, detailing the problems women will incur when cycling. “It was everything from developing appendicitis to dysentery, epilepsy. You could become unable to have children, apparently. One of the expressions [was] that you could become a lank-haired, red-faced, unsexed object,” Ms. Frijia said.
Though the author of the article was expressing some common assumptions of the time, the 1890s, it should be noted, were also a time when there was a particularly strong bicycle craze, ushering in a rapid, continual reinvention of bikes (with unruly penny-farthings giving way to chain-driven bikes), clothing tailored to allow freer movement (somewhat, by contemporary standards) and the entrance of women enjoying cycling in songs and popular culture.
Ms. Frijia’s reaction reading the nonsense Victorian warnings was to write an hour-long stage performance riffing off society’s changing mores toward women on bicycles, as well as some attitudes that linger. Titled BikeFace, the piece is currently playing in the Toronto Fringe Festival. A bicycle face was, it seems, yet another Victorian warning against having an expression of overexertion.
“What was it about this mode of transportation that polarized people so much? I felt it came down to the amount of freedom that if offered women,” Ms. Frijia said. “You no longer had to depend on a male chaperone. Well, that kind of overturned society as we knew it at the time. And that really fascinated me, this idea of the bicycle affording more freedom to women and what threat that poses [to some].”
The play draws from her own experiences. “I have some stories about campouts, because whenever you’re on an adventure by yourself, there are always going to be those first couple of nights camping by yourself, where you’re, like, ‘What is going to happen, and what have I gotten myself into?’ ”
The aim isn’t so much to retell, kilometre by kilometre, her bike adventures for an audience (although what cyclist doesn’t love regaling anyone who will listen with riding stories), but is more a free-flowing amalgam of bike tales and themes. Clare Blackwood, who performs the play, depicts different characters that Ms. Frijia met on the road and the situations she encountered. “All in Quebec and in the Prairies, people were offering me places to stay, like in their spare rooms or their backyards, or their backyard garage houses. So there are a lot of stories about friendly people from the Prairies, the friendliest people in Canada, I swear.”
What does linger, though, from the Victorian prejudice are modern-day warnings about safety. It’s not the more legitimate safety precautions that all solo travellers must take. It’s more the sense among some, Ms. Frijia said, that woman need permission from someone else to trek on her own.
“I think there is, in some ways, the sense that women shouldn’t be travelling alone. A number of people would say, Aren’t you afraid you’re going to get murdered? Or, Did your father, or boyfriend, or husband or some male relative in your life give you permission to do this? It’s incredibly interesting that we’re still asking women if they have permission to adventure,” Ms. Frijia said.
Women on solo trips do meet each other on the road, and “it definitely creates a bond, almost right away,” she added. This past winter, after first tackling a cold trek in Iceland, she found herself biking in Austria, where she met an 18-year-old fellow traveler looking for some guidance.
“We got to talking, and I asked her why she was travelling by herself. She said she was tired of her boyfriend telling her she couldn’t do anything by herself, and tired of her parents telling her all the things that would happen to her if she went out by herself.” So she cycled 100 kilometres from home “and was, like, Let’s try this for the weekend,” Ms. Frijia said.
Still, she understands the genuine feeling of caution expressed by some. “I understand where they’re coming from. What my goal is in this show, as a woman who loves to adventure-travel by myself, going on as many hiking trips or bike tours or kayaking trips as I can, is just to encourage other women if they are interested in adventure to get out there and give it a try.
“The more we work against the stereotype, the more we’re going to make travelling safer for women,” she added.