Biking: Reenactment+Enactment of Layers of Female Labor

I am interested in historical scenarios in which women (and sometimes girls) engaged in collective labor, usually simultaneous unpaid (often “invisible”) and paid labor, at the times when advancement in technology provided opportunities for women* outside domestic space. These historical moments symbolize the simultaneous culturally gender-based constraints and advancement in women’s freedoms* (mostly white middle and upper class). 

Through reenactment of their layers of labor enmeshed with my own enactment of my labor, I hope to illuminate this tension between restriction and expansion while paying tribute to women’s work* of the past and present, both visible and invisible. In doing so, I perform many of the types of labor historically associated with women* described below, including Domestic Labor, Caretaking Labor, Aesthetic Labor, Adornment Labor, Presentation Labor, Gender Role-Based Media Viewing Labor, Physical Labor, and Collective Labor.

(*The work presented here is couched in layers of my own lived experience being white, middle-class heterosexual, and thus, in many, many ways privileged. It is vital that I note that my experience of women’s work differs from that of women of color and other classes. While I want my work to feel supportive of the work of all women, I understand that my perspective is skewed by my experience. Women in the silent film depicted here also had access to bicycles and were mostly white and middle-class, as well. In addition, I made this work during the COVID pandemic quarantine, which illuminates my privilege as compared to those whose circumstances require that they work outside the home during this time.)I want my work to 1) illuminate and pay tribute to the work of these women (and similar work of women today) and 2) reveal the contradictory elements at play as they labor at times that are at once steps toward freedom but confined by society gender expectations. I also want to suggest that, in fact, women can be unruly, disorderly, and even (yes surprisingly!) funny.

This piece is about domestic labor and caregiving labor, specifically that of mothers and daughters enacted and reenacted INSIDE THE HOME during the COVID pandemic. We reenact the BICYCLE ride of women in 1900 who seemingly ride “freely” OUTSIDE; we enact their ride during the COVID pandemic while quarantined INSIDE the home on a STATIONARY BICYCLE. These women might at first glance appear to be riding “freely” but women at this time rode bicycles confined by many cultural constraints that required various types of labor specific to women of the time (and women in general). The INSIDE / OUTSIDE and MOVING / STATIONARY dichotomies suggest the tension between restriction and expansion of women’s freedoms. The HOME & the BICYCLE have both been symbols of women’s simultaneous freedoms and oppressions.

Intertwined HerStories   |   Reenactment and Enactment Interweave

Reenactment of other women’s labor from the past along with enactment of my own labor in the present, creates what I am calling an Intertwined HerStory. Our experiences become enmeshed and I can feel empathy and connection to their labor. In this way, the personal becomes political and the work hopes to create an entangled relationship between past and present labor. LABORTraditionally, women have been expected to perform many types of unpaid labor (“invisible” labors, domestic labor, care-taking, adornment labor, aesthetic labor, emotional labor, physical labor within the household, etc). Within more recent history, women have been able to perform more and more paid labor outside the home. I have created some of the categories of labor delineated below. I use the following definition of labor (general): a productive activity in which one exerts powers of body and mind, works, toils, strives toward a goal, works hard. The labor I discuss implies effort, time, exertion, toil, fatigue, striving, struggling, expended energy, production of a task, physical force, and undertaking.Women must often perform unpaid (invisible) and paid labor simultaneously. The cultures within which they perform paid labor often requires additional layers of unpaid labor for women.


I am using the following definition of Domestic Labor: “The numerous tasks associated with maintaining a household. Examples of Domestic Labor: Bathing children, Changing diapers (also called nappies), Cleaning the bathroom, preparing meals, shopping for groceries, and taking out the trash.” I like also this text: “Housework was understood broadly in the context of domestic labor. This was intended to include childcare as well as housework, and indeed other forms of care work and servicing that women did at home without a wage. “ This quote also discusses ideas important to my conception of Domestic Labor “While all workers are likely to experience time conflicts, working mothers are especially hard hit because, in addition to their paid labor, they take on the majority of unpaid household and care work. Most workers in the United States—including most working mothers—are employed full time, and most mothers are either breadwinners or co-breadwinners for their families. But in addition to their paid employment, most working mothers come home to a second shift of unpaid work that includes household labor and child care. While many are able to figure out ways to manage their time and responsibilities on the average day, when common but unexpected life events—such as a child running a fever or a broken appliance requiring a visit from a repairperson— upend schedules, too many workers are left without good options to address the competing needs of their employers and their families.”

In my project, I am performing the domestic labor specific to care-taking of my children in my home, while attempting to perform all of the other forms of labor discussed here. While doing this work, I am reducing my time for the other housework that needs to be done (cleaning, cooking, feeding, etc). Many women must manage the performance of all of these types of (often invisible) labors within each day. 

EMOTIONAL LABOR One definition of Emotional Labor specifies that “emotional labor refers to regulating or managing emotional expressions with others as part of one’s professional work role” Another definition states “This includes analysis and decision making in terms of the expression of emotion, whether actually felt or not, as well as its opposite: the suppression of emotions that are felt but not expressed. This is done so as to produce a certain feeling in the customer or client that will allow the company or organization to succeed.” I would argue that women also must undertake this type of emotional labor in their unpaid domestic and non-domestic work. Women tend to do more of the emotional labor within and without a household, such as “taking care of everyday things like doing chores, cooking, cleaning, managing household expenses, caring for children, and more. But doing the emotional labor in a relationship is about much more than just washing the dishes or paying the bills; it’s really about being mindful of your partner’s feelings and emotions.”  Women have been cited to do most of the emotional labor amongst family interactions between partners and children.

In my project, I perform the emotional labor (invisible labor) of managing and directing the behavior of my children (caregiving and emotional labor) while trying to exercise (physical and aesthetic labor), make a performance artwork (creative labor), keep my paper outfit on (adornment labor), reenact the roles of the bikers in the silent film (presentation labor), and stay emotionally composed and mindful of my children (emotional labor). I manage the girls as I direct them to perform this activity 60 times, which takes many hours of work, both theirs and mine.

CAREGIVING LABOR |  REPRODUCTIVE LABOR  Caregiving Labor (my term) is considered a subset of Domestic Labor in my work. This definition is useful: “A caregiver—sometimes called an informal caregiver—is an unpaid individual (for example, a spouse, partner, family member, friend, or neighbor) involved in assisting others with activities of daily living and/or medical tasks.”
Reproductive Labor

GENDER ROLE-BASED LABOR Gender Role-Based Labor (my term) is the presentation or performance of actions that enact roles expected by women in society. This includes various unpaid labors (invisible) such as aesthetic labor, emotional labor (politeness, decorum, kindness, empathy, calmness, nurture, warmth, dignified, not funny, not sarcastic, understanding, listening, reflecting, non-judgement, non-confrontational, management of others’ emotions, management of children), caregiving labor (including health-management labor (feeding), washing labor (cleaning objects and people), domestic labor (duties and physical labor). 

PRESENTATION LABOR (Adornment Labor + Aesthetic Labor + Emotional Labor + Physical Labor) Presentation labor (my term) involves the way a woman presents herself and requires physical, emotional, aesthetic labor simultaneously. It is a subset of Gender Role-Based Labor and includes Aesthetic Labor, Adornment Labor, Emotional Labor, and Physical Labor). This labor can often incorporates modes of dress. An example is bicycling costumes in the 1800s-1900s. I am particularly interested in the times that women undergo this labor at the same time as there are advancements in technology. These technologies are at the nexus of both freedom and opportunities for women and societal gender-based role restrictions and restraints. Women could not wear the pants that men wore to bicycle due to dangerous attention they received when in public. At the same time, the skirts that women wore were dangerous to wear on a bicycle as they caused injuries and even death. So women began creating patents that for adornment that would be safer and also fit within expected feminized roles in public life. 

AESTHETIC LABOR One relevant definition is: “The concept of aesthetic labor is a useful sociological intervention for understanding how the value of certain looks is constructed, and how looks matter for social stratification. Aesthetic labor is the practice of screening, managing, and controlling workers on the basis of their physical appearance. The concept advances research on the service economy by moving beyond a focus on emotions to emphasize worker corporeality. This article first untangles aesthetic labor from related concepts, including body work, emotional labor, and embodied cultural capital.”,emotions%20to%20emphasize%20worker%20corporeality.​​​​​​​

Other relevant verbiage: “It is the process, the labor of beauty as a whole. From a young age, girls are exposed to the world of cosmetics and expected to uphold societal norms by taking ownership over their routines in terms of their cosmetic choices and steps of their routines. In theory, this ability to build a routine seems easy, breezy and beautiful, but in a culture so heavily focused on self-improvement, the dedication to aesthetic labor becomes more than just a minute-long Instagram video, but a full-time job. A full-time job that, once it starts, the constant buzzing of beauty blogs, videos, channels, tutorials, magazine editorials, new and improved product lines, makes it nearly impossible to let go.”

Examples are listed here: “’looking good and sounding fine’, …language and body posture, the length of their skirts and their hairstyles, their weight and the size of their bust, hips and thighs, the make up that they wear, the way that they shave (both faces and legs), their jewellery and shoes and the colour of their hair (Hochschild, 1983; Paules, 1991; Warhurst and Nickson, 2001; Nickson et al., 2001; Thompson et al., 2001).” my project, I attempt to reenact the aesthetic labor of the women bicycling in 1900 by adorning a paper version of a dress from that time, bicycling with grace and decorum, wearing the equivalent restricting pants of the present day (skinny jeans), and managing my children with grace. The humor arises from my failure to keep my children composed and my paper adornment orderly as their behavior and my paper dress fall to pieces.

ADORNMENT LABOR Adornment Labor (my term) is a subset of Aesthetic Labor. Corsets, crinoline, heavy petticoats, all dangerous, cumbersome, uncomfortable, and even physically injuring require a special sort of labor that involves physical risk, discomfort, presentation labor, and aesthetic labor. One might consider skinny jeans to be the contemporary version of adornment labor as they can be quite uncomfortable and limiting in their movement. Although not cumbersome, they are tight and  similar in their need for adornment labor. “Clothing can enable and also inhibit” Kat Jungnickel Bygrave’s patented bicycling skirt design was less conspicuous than mine because she was able to make it be “hidden in plain site” as Kat Jungnickel notes in this video.  Mine is a paper version printed at %400 size of the actual image on the patent. I wanted to use the actual printed patent image from the document to call attention to the patent itself. Her design was meant to be hidden in plain site.

My project is meant to reveal the labor but also the fact that freedom of movement for women in general is still not available in many circumstances. Compared to men and current cycling clothing, the historical cultural restrictions required that women’s bicycle movement freedom was restricted. Her inventiveness solved a problem of lack of freedom for women at the time, but I also want to exaggerate the form to highlight the ways in which movement was still not “free” for women and in many ways still is not. All of this interplay between freedom of movement in apparel creates more “adornment labor” for women to navigate. 

Exaggerating the form of the clothing and making it out of paper (which rips and tears to show toil and wear), has a comedic effect similar to that of silent films in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Making physical body movements exaggerated highlights work and toil and challenge and mishaps. Using these visual cues and elements i am able to also suggest the work of these comediennes. This type of humor, for me, allows the work to move beyond sentimentalization (trivialization of motherhood) and into the arena of common shared experience. 

COLLECTIVE LABOR I am interested in photographs and videos that depict groups of women performing collective labor. I love the idea of using my self, body, personal experience, and experiential labor as way to “stand in” for the work of others, to perform their work as a way to honor it. In the silent film projected onto the curtains in my piece, the group of women riders move in an orderly, upright position, adhering to images of what a women “should be” according to gender norms of the time: agreeable, compliant, mild, controlled, manageable, controllable, moderate, mild, subservient, nurturing, with decorum, civility, gentility, orderliness, politeness, and convention. Collectively, these women perform many layers of labor, including physical, emotional, aesthetic, adornment, and presentation labor. I reenact their bike-riding performance while enacting my own layers of labor 60 times. There are about 60 women in the film so each performance I enact, pays tribute to one of the women. By juxtaposing them next to one another, so that I perform simultaneously, I hope to reveal the collective labor of these women as they rode together, at once.Reenacting/Enacting this same performance 60 times, calls attention to much of the invisible work of women (often domestic) that must be repeated every day for years. It illuminates the similarities and differences between repetitive tasks such as self-caretaking (grooming & exercising), managing children, cooking, sweeping, vacuuming, washing dishes, washing clothes, changing diapers, bathing children and elderly adults, sewing, feeding, etc. It can feel like one does the same thing over and over again as part of daily rituals. I pay tribute to the work of women who perform these tasks daily for hour upon hour of invisible labor.

PHYSICAL LABOR & EXERCISE Demarcating space and interiority as a stay-at-home mother is very challenging. It requires often bizarre and absurd multitasking such as exercising while managing children or even cooking. Women often help other women to find this space, many families hire nannies or babysitters. This delegation of labor can be impossible in many circumstances. Some mothers do not have any time to exercise because they work full time or do not have family nearby. As a result, their exercise (physical labor) is bound up within the structures of managing all of the domestic work alone. 

CREATIVE ENGINEERING LABOR & ALICE BYGRAVE In the late 1800s and early 1900s, bikes became a symbol of new freedoms for women in the public sphere. “ ‘Susan B Anthony, wrote in 1896: “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood.’ ”“During the fight to win the vote the bicycle became not only a tool but also a symbol for the emancipation of women.”“Both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are credited with declaring that ‘woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle,’ a line that was printed and reprinted in newspapers at the turn of the century.”“ ‘The woman on the wheel is altogether a novelty, and is essentially a product of the last decade of the century,” wrote The Columbian (Pennsylvania) newspaper in 1895, “she is riding to greater freedom, to a nearer equality with man, to the habit of taking care of herself, and to new views on the subject of clothes philosophy.Yes, bicycle-riding required a shift away from the restrictive, modest fashion of the Victorian age, and ushered in a new era of exposed ankles—or at least visible bloomers—that represented such a departure from the laced up, ruffled down fashion that preceded it that bicycling women became a fascination to the (mostly male) newspaper reporters of the time.’ ”

With the newfound opportunities also came challenges as women moved more openly and swiftly in public. Skirts worn by women at the time could become caught in the bicycle during riding and cause serious accidents and even death. Women could be harassed if they wore clothing that strayed too far from acceptable norms. In order to improve the situation for themselves, some creative women invented and patented bicycle clothing that sought to improve their riding experience. The book, Bikes and Bloomers,, details many of these patents. In this project, I focus on the work of Alice Bygrave, a mother and inventor, Here is her Cycling Skirt Patent feel a sort of connection to her, as a mother, trained mechanical engineer, mountain biker, and as I help my daughters learn to ride bikes. She performed creative engineering labor (a field not traditionally associated with women) to create patents that would improve the Presentation labor, Aesthetic Labor, Adornment Labor, and Physical Labor situation for women bicyclists. I chose to print (using 8.5 x 11”) paper on a standard desktop printer, an image of her patented skirt. I taped the printed pages together to construct a paper “costume”. The use of paper represents the patent document that was historically paper and now is digital and can be printed endlessly. The paper is fragile and tatters with use showing wear and toil and labor. Printing on a desktop printer draws a connection along the line of technology in photography from analog to digital processes. Desktop printers are available to many women  for use while also performing domestic labor. 

SILENT FILM ANTECEDENTS Reenactment of silent films from history help to illuminate women’s labor of the past and its connection, antecedents, precedents, influence on women’s labor of the present. The bicycle film used in my performance is not a movie, but is meant as a documentation of an actual event. ( Reeacting these women’s biking for the duration of the film, done 60 times, once for each woman, intertwines my labor with theirs; Past intertwines with the present. I perform their labor from the present day circumstances. I want to celebrate the collective labor of these women at this time, despite the system of constraints confining them. I want to point to similar constraints on women today, but also gently suggest that there are ways to expand out from this through humor (as a mode of resistance?). As I fail to keep control of my children and my adornment, I point to the fragility of the gender norms placed on women as they perform all of the unpaid labors discussed above. 

UNDERCRANKING Undercranking is traditionally used to speed up the action in a film and result in a comedic effect. I choose to undercrank in order to give my labor a sense of frenzy that I actually feel as a caregiver to my children. With so many tasks to be completed in small amounts of time, my domestic labor and caregiving often feels undercranked (sometimes four people are talking to me at once and requesting care simultaneously). As a result the piece, and my life, can feel harried, frenzied, chaotic, frantic, frenetic.