On the run up to Ilkley Literature Festival, Ann at Cause UK interviewed author Hannah Ross for regional press. Check out the full feature below.
Author Hannah Ross invites audiences to get on their bikes and join the revolution at the Ilkley Literature Festival…
Hannah Ross went through two life-changing events in the pandemic – having a baby and the publication of her book. Both experiences were ‘massively different’ to her expectations.
“With the pandemic, I’ve missed out on a lot of things you normally would do as a published author, like going to festivals. Ilkley Literature Festival will be my second in person event. I didn’t do signings in shops. That whole meeting audiences and readers was missing.”
Her book, Revolutions: How Women Changed the World on Two Wheels tells the celebratory and trailblazing stories of women throughout history to the present day.
While pregnant, the topic became even more valuable to her.
“I cycled throughout my pregnancy; It’s low resistance, low impact. Originally, I just wanted to carry on doing it as it’s something that’s really important to me, and it’s good for my mental health. When the pandemic hit, it became the safest way to travel around to go to hospital appointments because I didn’t want to take public transport.”
Many of us have memories forged by cycling. That first time without stabilisers, childhood adventures on two wheels, the exhilaration and freedom of hopping on a bike. Bikes are, Hannah says, unusual – as a useful object that moves us from A to B, but also as a source of fun. But it’s the largely untold feminist history of cycling that she felt needed to be told.
“I think cycling is seen as mainly male dominated. It’s generally represented in the media and in sport as such, but there’s this incredible story of women cyclists, from the very beginnings of the bicycle, and those women get forgotten about,” Hannah said.
The pioneering female cyclists often met resistance. From physically being pelted with eggs or bricks, to being told cycling led to a manly gait, infertility or even promiscuity. Cycling was linked to the campaign for the right for women to wear trousers.
“The women in the book have overcome some resistance or opposition to what they do, whether it be women cycling in Saudi Arabia or Victorian women in the UK in the 1890s. I wanted to celebrate their stories.”
The bicycle liberated women to become activists. Hannah explores vibrant acts of defiance.
Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst were members of the Clarion cycling clubs linked to the socialist weekly newspaper of the same name. They rode around distributing newsletters and holding rallies.
“The Pankhurts were good at cycling because women’s lives up until that point in Victorian times had been quite restricted. Women’s lives then lacked movement. They were generally confined to the home and domestic spheres, they weren’t encouraged to seek education or do jobs, and certainly not play sport of be physically active. And then the bicycle came along and represented everything that was missing in women’s lives at that time – independence, the ability to go places under your own steam, using your own power and energy and volition. Symbolically, it is a feminist invention.”
Now women have, in the UK at least, independence and freedom, as well as cars, Hannah believes peddle power still holds plenty of potential.
“We’re currently facing the biggest crisis that history has ever faced with climate change, so I see the revolution as still continuing. This is a green and efficient way of moving us around in our cities. There’s still a lot of revolutionary potential in bicycles. Also, when I spoke to a lot of women for my book in other countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, the kind of obstacles there means that it still feels very revolutionary for women to ride a bike in those countries.”
In sport, Hannah explored the legacy of Beryl Burton, dubbed the ‘Yorkshire Housewife’.
“Her record was just phenomenal, and some of her records took decades to beat; I think some are still standing. Beryl illustrates how professional women cyclists have not been taken seriously at all. The fact it took till 1984 for women to cycle at the Olympics, whereas men had been doing it for nearly 100 years at that point. You look at what Beryl achieved and what more she could have achieved if there’d been more opportunities – it reveals that massive gender gap.”
Hannah, who works in publishing, is passionate about books and bikes.
“Obviously I do a lot of cycling and I love it, and I hope that this book will inspire others to fall in love with it as well.”
Hannah also rallies against the body-image inhibitions that women who cycle often battle with.
“For women to get on a bike it’s political, but for men they just get on the bike, they don’t have that whole historical baggage that goes with it. It’s really crazy when you think about it. And that so many women worry if they wear the right clothes or look okay.”
When it comes to pedal power and gender equality – particularly in sport – the road ahead is still long. Her book goes some way in addressing the imbalance by reclaiming these remarkable stories.
“There wasn’t a book solely celebrating the range of women cycling throughout history. It’s never really been done before; it’s only been touched on in general books about cycling and cycling history.”
One positive to come out of Covid-19 was a dramatic increase in bike sales; 2020 witnessed the ‘great bicycle boom’.
Hannah hopes audiences at Ilkley will, after her talk, be encouraged to take up cycling if they haven’t already.
“I hope audiences find that it’s not just men in Lycra. There are these incredible women who did extraordinary things, such as Victorian women who cycled around the world on their own, or women who raced on Penny Farthings against men in the 1880s; women cycling isn’t a new thing, it’s always been there, we just haven’t given it the attention it deserves.”
Hannah Ross is at the Ilkley Literature Festival on Saturday 16 October, 12.3opm at All Saints’ Church. To book go to: www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk