Book review: Bikes and Bloomers by Kat Jungnickel

bandbI ride a bike but I would not call myself a cyclist. I wear everyday clothes, do not own a piece of lycra and my wicker basket is usually brimful of bags, books and assorted paraphernalia.

I thank the many women, so wonderfully highlighted and celebrated in Bikes and Bloomers by Kat Jungnickel, for their courage, ingenuity and determination to have ‘nerves of iron’ to pave the way for women taking up public space on their bicycles.

While much has been documented about the bicycle itself, little has been known about the clothing which allowed Victorian women to take to their velocipedes.

Bikes and Bloomers entwines invention, sewing and some frankly badass women who refused to wait patiently for the organic change which would allow them to venture more into the public sphere – they went out to drive the social change.

Conventional women’s clothing made cycling not only incredibly difficult but also potentially life threatening due to flowing, multiple layers of skirts getting caught not only by the cycle itself, but also passing carriages.

So, in the late 19th Century, women, and some men, took it upon themselves to challenge the status quo and create not only clothing but also liberation for the many women who wished to take to two wheels and expand their world.

Thanks to women like Kitty J Buckman, a prolific letter writer and cycling lover, the book details what faced the likes of Kitty and her friends when they ventured out. In 1897, Kitty wrote “The shouts and yells of the children deafen one, the women shriek with laughter or groan and hiss all sorts of remarks are shouted at one, occasionally some not fit for publication. It’s awful – one wants nerves of iron.” Another woman documented “My friend and I bicycle in ordinary everyday dress, yet we never go out without receiving a fair amount of this so-called chaff…and occasionally we have had caps etc thrown at us.” This is one of the numerous elements of the book where you cannot help reflect on how little some things have changed since Kitty’s days. Women still face catcalls, abuse and more than occasionally ‘remarks not fit for publication’. Stationary at traffic lights appears to be an open invitation for some vehicle drivers to comment, unsolicited, on your appearance.

The ingenuity of the clothes designs is jaw dropping. Convertible costumes were heavily patented during this period. They allowed women to convey an outward appearance of ‘normal’ dress until getting on her cycle. An elaborate, hidden, system of ‘weights and pulleys, waxed cords, stitched channels, hooks, loops and buttoning systems’ converted skirts into capes and gathered material out of the way of wheels. ‘Adaptable gusset action’ was also part of a patent for an ‘Improved Cycling Skirt’.

Women daring to take to the streets on their cycles understandably caused controversy and their ‘femininity’ questioned. They were expected to remain graceful and elegant and the ‘lady cyclist’ was expected to avoid becoming ‘a woman who allows herself to be seen hot and red with exertion’. Again, this still resonates today with campaigns such as This Girl Can still necessary to articulate that females can participate in sport and not be embarrassed to sweat, grimace or go red in the face.

Bikes and Bloomers is a glorious book – not just for those who enjoy cycling but for anyone who wants to learn more about the wonderful women who were brave, inventive, sisterly and political. As is too often the case, women are erased from the history books and their achievements not recognised. Kat’s meticulous research and writing rights that wrong.

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50 years of choice – The Abortion Act

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It is 50 years since the 1967 Abortion Act.
But despite half a century passing, abortion is still not openly discussed and women are vilified and shamed if they share their story of having an abortion.
And when abortion is discussed, the narrative is all too often about a women’s right to access abortion if she has been raped. That is the starting position for too many of the debates. That is how much society is weighted against women.
She must have suffered the trauma that is rape, for her to have the audacity to not want to continue a pregnancy and have a child.
Every female should have legal access to abortion – for whatever reason. Her individual reason is enough.
Already, the Abortion Act only allows terminations to be carried out once they have been agreed by two doctors and carried out by a doctor in a government approved hospital or clinic. Most abortions are carried out before 24 weeks.
And let’s not forget. Having an abortion is still a criminal offence. The Abortion Act merely set the parameters under which abortion could be legal.
Before the Act came into force, backstreet abortions were the leading cause of maternal death in England and Wales.
Government figures show that in England and Wales last year, 190,406 abortions were carried out – a slight drop from 191,014 in 2015.
Just under 5,000 of those abortions were to non-residents of England and Wales. Figures show 724 women made the journey from Northern Ireland, 3,265 from the Irish Republic and 110 from United Arab Emirates.
On Teesside, the Department of Health figures show that last year 559 females had an abortion in Middlesbrough and 549 in Stockton.
The number of under 18s having abortions in 2016 was 30 in Middlesbrough and 37 in Stockton. This compares with 52 women over the age of 35 in Middlesbrough and 79 women in Stockton. Every one of those females had their own reason for ending their pregnancy. And that is enough reason.
No woman uses abortion as a contraception method. That pathetic argument used by some is simply not true.
Accessing abortion facilities is often made more difficult for women thanks to anti abortion groups who gather outside with the sole purpose of intimidating those using the clinic.
As the Abortion Act marks its 50th anniversary, Ealing Council has recently voted in favour of banning protests outside abortion clinics. This positive move will allow women in that Borough to access legal health care without facing harassment from strangers waving placards.
These ‘buffer zones’ should be introduced outside all clinics – women’s right to abortion should not include facing a barrage of abuse. Both staff and women accessing the service should not fear harassment or being filmed or followed as they enter or leave the premises.
Language is powerful and using terms such as ‘pro life’ suggests any woman who supports abortion rights is therefore ‘pro death’. It’s about being pro choice – allowing women to make a choice. Their choice.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) has recently won Charity of the Year. The Charity’s Chief Executive, Ann Furedi, said: “This is fabulous recognition of the work done by a marvellous team of staff who do everything in their power to help women with problem pregnancies. But most importantly, it marks that abortion is no longer seen as something shameful, to apologise for.”
It is a fact there will always be abortion. You can never ban abortion. Only safe abortion. And while there is no wholesale appetite for the Government to ban abortion outright, it is vital we ensure they do not make it harder and more restrictive for women. Reducing the time limit and increasing medical approval can only impact negatively on women and girls.
Many women are fertile for up to 30 years. That is three decades of hoping whichever form of contraceptive is used, works or is available when needed.
Every woman is different. Every woman has her own story and her own circumstances.
Every woman should have the right to decide what happens to her own body. Period.

Waxing lyrical about women and body hair

I can still remember the first time I shaved my legs. As a young teenager, I took a used Bic razor I found lying on the side of the bath and with little more than a film of soap, hacked away at my black haired covered legs.

The daily embarrassment, or shame which is actually what I felt, at my ugly long black hairs, poking through my school uniform regulation white socks made me succumb to what I thought was an inevitable expectation anyway. May as well start now.

PE lessons, with legs bared to the class, were the worst. Short netball skirt and ankle socks and trainers meant there was no hiding place for my hirsute legs. My fairer haired girl friends would bemoan their lot too. But to me, their blonde downy, barely noticeable, wisps, were something I would have gladly accepted.

Shaving brought about stubble. Thick, sharp, stubborn, incessant black hairs. I bought epilators – they didn’t make a dent in my leg forest. I challenge any advert selling razors, epilators or hair removal creams to show my fully covered pins and see how well their products work.

I remember in my teens, painstakingly plucking my leg hairs out individually. A mammoth task I can tell you.

Waxing proved painful (obviously) and requires a period of hair growth before you can submit to having wax smeared on your body parts. Ripping out my bikini line was something I paid another woman to do. I have been known to accidentally use nail varnish remover instead of eye make-up remover so I was not going to attempt covering my own nether regions with a red hot substance. I may have bought into the multi million pound beauty standards myth, but I am not totally stupid.

Ingrowing hairs, rashes, bleeding shins and ankles and red raw arm pits and bikini lines are just a part of the grooming ritual we are meant to expect.

As a young girl, no-one told me I should shave my legs. I just knew it was expected. And the expectation for girls and women to have zero body hair has not gone away. It has got worse.

Legs, arm pits and pubic areas should be bald. Sans hair. Nada. Smooth as a peach.

A trip to my local pharmacy is telling. The aisle for hair removal products is longer and more densely stocked than the tampon and sanitary towel section.

The array of products is a pink assault to the eyes. Wax strips, wet and dry epilators, trimmers, facial wax strips and microwaveable wax pots. Hair removal cream, hair bleach, shower power cream, spray on hair removal solution and hair removal mitts. The razors are twin blade, triple blade and even five blade. There are gels and creams. Serums are available to fight the look of facial hair regrowth and solutions to tackle pesky ingrowing hairs. The creams and razors are given names such as colour collection, tropical, spa breeze and a pink ‘miss’ collection obviously aimed at young girls. They promise you will be left ‘clean’ ‘smooth’ ‘silky’ and ‘lush’ if you use the products. There is a handy ‘on the go’ trimmer so you can remove fail hair anytime, anywhere. Phew!

Women have body hair. It is natural, but we have been conditioned to believe it is somehow dirty and makes us slovenly having let ourselves go. Talking to female friends, it is clear there is and has been since puberty, the expectation that we are smooth of skin. But there does seem to be a gentle shift towards feeling more relaxed and self-confident about body hair.

Figures from Mintel show that 83 per cent of women aged 16-24 believe there is too much pressure on women to remove or groom body hair. The gradual shift in attitude saw 85 per cent of 16-24 year old women remove leg hair in 2016 down from 91 per cent in 2014. But, like the vast range of hair removal products on sale shows, it is a lucrative market. Figures show, despite a 5 per cent fall in 2016, sales of shaving and hair removal products still raked in £567 million.

I no longer feel the need to remove body hair. And if anyone has an issue with that or finds it gross, then that is their problem. I find it is a quick and easy radar for those to avoid.

Women have body hair. That is not something to be ashamed of. That is normal.

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