Hot on the heels of my first bike ride in a skirt and heels last week, I read a June 10 news account of a visitor from Holland reportedly being stopped by the New York City police for wearing a short skirt. Jasmijn Rijcken said an officer told her that her thigh-skimming skirt presented a threat to public safety as a potential distraction to motorists.
Rijcken, the 31-year-old manager of a bicycle company, who had been visiting New York for the inaugural New Amsterdam Bike Show, said she was approached on May 3 by a police officer while parking her bike in Soho.
“He said it’s very disturbing, and it’s distracting the cars and it’s dangerous,” Rijcken told the Daily News. “I thought he was joking around but he got angry and asked me for ID.”
No summons was issued and it should be noted that there are no laws against riding a bicycle in a short skirt.
Join In! Short Skirt Celebration Ride in New York City
Thursday, June 16
7 – 10 pm
Meet at Columbus Circle
Click here for route and further information.
Outrage, Then Scrutiny
As the report spread rapidly through social media streams and news outlets, Rijcken’s story came under scrutiny for lack of corroboration by witnesses and when it surfaced that Rijckens calls herself an expert on “guerrilla marketing.” After further investigation, Streetsblog last night published A Long Explanation of Why the Biking-While-Sexy Story is No Hoax.
In the mean time, cries of harassment, abuse of power, misguided flirtatiousness by the policeman, as well as defense of clothing that prevents others from feeling “uncomfortable” in the streets, were among major themes that ran through passionate commentary on popular cycling blogs.
While there’s no evidence of any pattern of harassment of female cyclists, the report of this incident didn’t occur in a vacuum. Some commentators viewed it against the backdrop of a summons issued in April to an Upper East Side private school executive for carrying a tote bag on her handlebar, as well as Operation Safe Cycle, a citywide enforcement campaign launched in January.
From my point of view, the whole controversy sells both women and men short by implying that women can’t take care of themselves, and that men can’t control themselves.
‘Censure Over Chastity?’
Incidents of harassment over cycling apparel hark back to the battle for women’s rights that played out partly on two wheels more than a century ago.
The Rijckens incident reminds me of an account in David Herlihy’s excellent Bicycle: The History, of an avant-garde cycling advocate Angeline Allen of Newark, New Jersey (shown above). In the fall of 1893, her “natty uniform as near like that worn by men as possible” led the publication American Athlete to denounce her masculine attire, insisting on a “continuance of chastity.” It advised wheelwomen to “abstain from anything that will attract censure.”
More than a century later, Rijckens seems to have attracted “censure” for supposedly refusing to adhere to “continuance of chastity” — with a skirt rather than trousers. Let’s just put aside one officer’s assumed poor judgment or lack of knowledge. His retrograde admonition to Rijckens did a disservice both to women and men: Rijckens, who was riding in the streets of New York City can presumably take care of herself. Men are presumably capable of restraining their baser instincts.
After all, using the logic offered up by the police officer, shouldn’t Manhattan traffic be coming to a standstill — punctuated with fender-benders along the avenues — based on the “distraction” kindled among male motorists by the summer short skirts and short-shorts seen on sidewalks or in pedestrian crosswalks, never mind the bike lanes. By the way, certain males also ride shirtless on city streets, and let’s not forget that Spandex, especially in a men’s all-white racing kit, sometimes leaves little to the imagination.
The Next Frontier
The incident was a reminder of both how far we’ve all come, and how far we have to go. More women and men than ever ride bicycles in New York City. Today’s issues are less about gender than about “normalizing” everyday cycling for everyone. For the women who choose city cycling for all its benefits — good health, economy, efficiency, improved quality of the urban environment, and fun — the challenge lies in claiming and promoting it as a ordinary daily activity, no different than walking or riding a subway. It was the likes of Mrs. Allen who set us on that road and continue to inspire us today.
Illustration: Library of Congress