by Maria Popova
“No decent woman or girl is ever seen on a bicycle.”
It’s one thing to look at a Victorian list of don’ts for women on bicycles with amusement-softened outrage, perhaps because we have the luxury of looking back on those times with the detached smugness of an evolved society. But it’s quite something else to encounter a similar list from an era too uncomfortably close to our own. Such is the case of a poster James Michener makes note of in Iberia, which he encounters pinned to a church door while traveling across rural Spain in the late 1960s. Dated July 11, 1943, and laid out by a bishop as a code of conduct for local life, the twelve-point directive bespeaks religion’s persistent, matter-of-factly subjugation of women:
- Women shall not appear on the streets of this village with dresses that are too tight in those places which provoke the evil passions of men.
- They must never wear dresses that are too short.
- They must be particularly careful not to wear dresses that are low-cut in front.
- It is shameful for women to walk in the streets with short sleeves.
- Every woman who appears in the streets must wear stockings.
- Women must not wear transparent or network cloth over those parts which decency requires to be covered.
- At the age of twelve girls must begin to wear dresses that reach to the knee, and stockings at all times.
- Little boys must not appear in the streets with their upper legs bare.
- Girls must never walk in out-of-the-way places because to do so is both immoral and dangerous.
- No decent woman or girl is ever seen on a bicycle.
- No decent woman is ever seen wearing trousers.
- What they call in the cities ‘modern dancing’ is strictly forbidden.
The most jarring part, however, is that the poster is made all the more tragicomic by new evidence that, in many ways, things have hardly gotten better.