When Wendy Pillar is not on her bike she grows her own food on her microholding in Dorset. She has a BA and MA from the Open University and is a freelance writer and editor. Her subversive blog about food and politics can be found at wendypillar.wordpress.com
Recently I left my husband house sitting and went on a group cycling holiday by myself. It was an interesting and gendered experience. The group was all couples except for me and another single woman the same age as me. It’s often advised for women travelling alone to wear a wedding ring. Next time I’m thinking of leaving mine at home though, as I attracted so much more curiosity than my single companion. Everyone knew how to categorise her, but I was far more puzzling. A married woman doing her own, independent thing is threatening to the social fabric. I go a lot of places on my own, not because I have no friends or don’t get on with my husband, but because I have many varied interests that are peculiarly my own and I’m fine by myself. I frequently receive an uneasy response, particularly from those older than me, as if somehow my independence threatens their own marriage, or marriage in general.
I’m pretty sure that, if I was a man, ‘my wife doesn’t like cycling’ would have been an adequate explanation for her absence. A wife ‘letting’ her husband travel alone is not leaving him ‘unprotected’ though – a husband is supposed to nobly accompany his wife everywhere regardless of whether he is interested in the trip. After all, women don’t ‘go out’, they get ‘taken out’, ‘taken on holiday’. I am supposed to nag him into taking me where I want to go, or stay at home and resent him for not doing so. I decline to do either. Somehow it is emasculating for my husband that I travel alone (my in-laws don’t approve!), or it means that our marriage is in trouble and I am sexually available, and many other things than the simple truth that sometimes we like to do our own thing.
I regretted explaining that my husband has a back injury and can’t easily travel though, because I spent half the week talking about his back. The ‘getting to know you’ questions always involved my husband. The questions we ask of new acquaintances are always about pegging people socially. ‘Are they one of us?’ is what we are really asking. Being a rather middle class group, I was asked about where I lived, what my house was like, what I did for a living, and crucially what my husband does for a living, because you can’t peg a woman’s social status without knowing that of her husband. All of which failed to uncover anything essential about who I am – my job does not define me, it merely pays for what is important in my life. It did make a change though to be asked ‘what do you do?’ instead of ‘do you work?’, to which my reply is usually ‘is it optional?’
Apparently, where one lady came from it is polite to ask straight out how much someone’s house is worth. After failing to get this question answered and grilling me on how many floors my house has, how many bathrooms, how much ground, this lady turned to my single companion, a highly qualified and experienced medical professional, and said ‘I don’t suppose you can afford to buy a house, do you rent a flat?’, to which she received a suitably exasperated reply. Apparently, without a man to provide for you, you can’t expect much in the way of housing!
I was also told ‘you are very independent/brave’ quite a lot. I can’t imagine anyone saying that to a 40+ man on an organized group holiday solo. I can barely imagine people saying it to him hiking unsupported through the Himalayas. In fact I’ve been told I’m brave going to a literary convention in Stoke on my own. Are the expectations of what middle-aged women are capable of really so low? Are we infantilised so much that we are incapable of going anywhere without a male to lean on?
At the start of the holiday, the guide showed me how to use the gears on the bike (embarking on a 200 mile ride, one would hope everyone’s ridden a bike before). We soon made quite a long and steep hill climb. When he got to the top and found me right behind him, he said ‘Oh, you’re quite good!’, surprised. In fact, of the four fastest riders all week, three of us were women over 40, and two of us didn’t even have a man to help us!
Slightly irritating questioning aside, I had a fabulous time on my holiday, and I’d recommend it to any dangerously independent woman. I’ve been happily married for twenty years, but it’s too much to ask that a couple’s interests remain constant and identical over all that time. What normally happens is that one half of a couple, often the woman, neglects her own interests for those of the other. My husband races his car on hill climbs, and such events are full of wives and girlfriends sitting by the side of the track watching their man have a great time. That’s their choice, and I do it from time to time, but I’d rather be out doing my own thing, even if that makes me a little bit dangerous.