“You’re way too pretty to be doing this job,” a receptionist says to bike messenger Kelly Pennington on a winter day in Montreal.
“Oh, they sent a girl?” a doorman mumbled to Kelsey Phillips, a Chicago bike messenger nearing a PhD in micro-biology. “Let me help you carry that.”
“Ooh look at those legs. You have some nice stems, girl,” teased a man standing in a freight elevator, as Christina Peck, a bike messenger with Godspeed Courier out of San Francisco, stepped in. She looks down at her legs. She’s nearly six feet tall; there’s a lot of leg.
These are the interactions that happen every day to female messengers, over and over again, shift after shift, run after run.
“As a messenger you’re already made to feel relegated.” said Christina Peck. “You can’t use the front door of a building or you’re talked down to by receptionists.” Add being a female, in a male dominant environment and you pile on another set of obstacle.
“When my male co-worker walks into a loading dock, he simply delivers the package,” Kelsey Phillips observed. “I am cat-called, ogled and have endless comments made about my looks, my body and my gender. It’s creepy, and sometimes these comments end up sticking with me all day.”
When Chrome Industries, a brand that mimics messenger lifestyle, posted a photo on their Instagram account last October featuring a topless female model posing as a messenger handing out flyers on the street of New York City, Pennington, Peck, Phillips and other women from the newly formed Women’s Bike Messenger Association had had enough and decided to take a stand. Together they crafted a message and posted a response to the image on their Facebook Page, asking Chrome to take down the photo.
“It’s not a female messenger problem, it’s a problem. Images like these keep happening in the cycling industry and it’s not okay,” said Pennington
Along with others, the Women’s Bike Messenger Association (WBMA) used its collective voice to take a stand. Chrome took down the post and offered an apology.
The WBMA is new. It’s barely a year old, and it’s the first time female messengers have come together to take a stand and support one another. While the organization launched into the public eye with their critique of the Chrome Industries social media post, the WBMA isn’t meant to be a critiquing platform. The purpose is to be a force of good, to motivate female messengers and give them a support system inside messenger-culture, which can often feel like a boys club.
The idea for the WBMA began during the 2015 Cycling Messenger World Championships (CMWC) in Melbourne, Australia. Leading up to the start of the event was a ride from Sydney to Melbourne,which is about 1,200 km (745 miles). Out of the 200 people on the ride, eight were women, including Pennington, Peck and Phillips, the future founders of the WMBA.
At the time it wasn’t surprising that there were so few women on the ride. This is typical when it comes to events like this. Even in such small numbers, these three women didn’t know each other before the ride began, but as the miles progressed they began to ride together and forge that bond that only cycling hundreds of miles can provide. Along the way they began to share stories about their jobs and everything they deal with on a daily basis, mostly the harassment.
“To know I wasn’t alone with the cat-calling was huge,” Pennington commented. “I talk to my male co-workers and they say, ‘yeah that sucks.’ But they don’t get how deep it cuts.”
After the world championships, the three women decided they wanted to provide a similar outlet for all female messengers. They officially formed the WBMA and vowed to hold their first official meeting at the next large event, the North American Cycling Courier Championships (NACCC) this past September in Denver, Colorado.
The women worked hard, starting a Facebook group, writing a mission statement and got the NACCC to put the WBMA meeting on its official agenda for first day of the week-long event.
“We weren’t sure if anyone was going to show up,” said Phillips.
Fifty women attended.
They spoke about their job, the harassment, racing alleycats and for the first time ever, they bonded as a group. And then something funny happened.
While the NACCC is well attended by women, often times the majority of women attend only to spectate. At this year’s event, an unprecedented number of females signed up to race. Of all the racers, 25% of those who made it to the last round were female. In previous years only five women would even start the race.
This is the same event where, in 2009, Peck won the overall, in a mixed field, a feat never before accomplished by a woman. Upon winning she was accused of cheating. She didn’t cheat. For the first time the race wasn’t just about being the fastest, it was about skill along with speed, and Peck excelled. That following year, at the Atlanta NACCC, Peck had the weight of the win on her shoulders, and a lot of eyes watching her, expecting her to fail. She came in third overall, and first woman. Her previous year’s result was validated.
Yet, the WBMA isn’t looking for just another female’s prize in a men’s field. They are looking to create women-exclusive events. They’ve found when you give women their own space, it’s amazing how many will come out and show their support and actually participate at an event, rather than merely spectate. That what’s at the heart of the WBMA’s mission. It’s no longer simply enough to think of women as an afterthought when it comes to cycling.
“A promoter will throw a race with a combined field and one woman will register, and they’ll say, ‘Look no women are interested.’ Or a brand will launch a product and no women will buy it and they’ll say, ‘Why should we cater to you, no women support us,’” said Pennington. “But they aren’t talking to us, they’re talking to men and hoping women fall in line. If you want to talk to women, hire women. It’s that simple.”
So imagine you’re Pennington, Peck or Phillips and you’re outside on a snowy day in Chicago. It’s 0 degrees outside. There’s wet, sloppy slush on the road and the blue salt they use to melt the snow has infiltrated your tights and is causing chemical burns on your legs. On top of all of this you arrive at a location to pick up an extra heavy package. The man at the door looks at you and says, “Oh, they sent a girl, great.” You roll your eyes and strap the package to your back and get on your way. You get to the drop-off location and a freight operator looks you up and down, making kissing noises. You ignore it, make the delivery and just when you think you’re done for the day, your phone rings. It’s a company asking you to pick up a shift. You know you shouldn’t take it. You know you should go home. You know your legs are burning with pain from the salt that’s eating away at your skin. But a voice in your head speaks up. It says you have to go on because you’re a girl, and you don’t want to come off as weak or incapable. You go on with a desire to prove everyone wrong.
While this can be empowering, it’s also a problem the WBMA wants to solve. Women shouldn’t have to prove anything. Women are different than men, but that doesn’t mean they can’t accomplish the same tasks, nor should they have to go to great lengths to prove it.
“Women need a place in this community and that’s what we want to provide. It’s not about physical limitations, it’s about gender differences,” acknowledged Peck. “Women are just as tough as men and it’s about time that respect is given.”
However, back on that snowy day in Chicago, Phillips did take the extra shift because she was worried about what it would mean if she didn’t. When she got home five hours later, she slowly peeled the tights off her legs. They were bloated, blue and burned from the combination of cold and chemicals. Harassing comments echoed in her brain. Her cheeks were red, but not in a cute way. Her fingers frozen and barely able to unzip her coat. But despite the hardship, she loved what she did. No other job on the planet affords someone the freedom to travel, the comfort to know you have a friend and a job waiting for you in any city on the planet, and the opportunity to ride a bike every day. This is why people desire to become messengers, and the WBMA is here to make sure that everyone, no matter their gender can have that chance.
Today, the WBMA consists of over a thousand members from all over the globe. The association is collectively run, and invites other to join them on their Facebook Page. It plans to hold events at every large messenger event, and in the future hopes to be able to run a scholarship to send first-timers to their first NACCC or CMWC events.