“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling…I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride on a wheel. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”
So said Susan B. Anthony, a 19th century American suffragette and social reformer. No wonder that the newly invented bicycle soon became known as the “freedom machine”.
Bicycles give you the freedom and independence to travel long distances without having to rely on stage coaches, horse-drawn carriages or (ugh!) men.
But today’s petrol-fuelled transportation means we’ve forgotten how hard a five mile walk to the local shops can feel. An hour and a half foot-slog is covered in just twenty minutes by bike. That’s the difference between going out and staying in.
For women of the late nineteenth century, the acquisition of a bicycle meant they could travel further to visit friends, go shopping alone or take a job for the first time. The impact of this emancipatory invention cannot be overstated.
(Okay, so maybe the impact of the bicycle can be overstated a little bit: biologist Steve Jones credits the bicycle for the remarkable explosion in diversity of the human gene pool over the last hundred and fifty years. A boast too far?)
Bikes mean freedom for Calais migrants
For the migrants stuck in Calais, the bicycle can have a similar liberating impact. The wasteground where the migrants are ghettoed is more than two miles from the town centre. That means hours of sore-slogging walks every day.
The migrants are not given more than one meal a day at the Jules Ferry Centre. Where can they get the rest of their food? From the town, a five mile round trip.
The camp nurse is only available during restricted hours and not at all on weekends. Where can migrants seek medical help? From the town, a five mile round trip.
Clothes, the library, internet access – all are a five mile round trip away, or more. The most prized possession of many migrants is a decent pair of shoes: they are worn down in a matter of weeks. Many migrants are stuck in Calais for months.
Bicycles are a gift of freedom
But there is more to the liberating powers of the bicycle than the mere practicalities of transportation. As women found in the nineteenth century, bicycles are a gift of freedom.
Migrants in Calais have spent weeks, months and years, slowly making their way north from whatever war-torn country they are fleeing. They have trusted in mafia agents and abandoned themselves to deadly rust-bucket boats in the Mediterranean; they have spent days playing hide and seek with gun-toting border guards and dodging ticket inspectors in train toilets.
Nobody makes such a journey out of choice. Nobody wants to beg and borrow for their lives. A bicycle can give migrants the freedom to go where they want, under their own power – at last! A bicycle gives the gift of self-reliance, independence, autonomy and pride.
(Not to mention that bikes are damn good fun! I watched a group of lads taking it in turns to cycle at giddying speeds round the pretty flower beds of Richelieu Park. The simple pleasures.)
Words are not enough – what can I do about it?
Glad you asked! At the end of August, we’re launching a biketilla (a bike flotilla?) to Calais. On the 29th of August, hundreds of people will be cycling second hand bikes from London to France, leaving the “freedom machines” with migrants in the camp there.
You can join us by attending the Facebook event or by sending a message to humans [at] ukhip.eu. Then just put a call out to your friends for a spare bike and get pedalling!
If you can’t make it on the 29th, then please do consider getting involved in some other way, by sharing the event or by baking us a cake to keep us fuelled! THANKS!