Women and Bicycles! I had never thought of bicycles in this way until I read an article in the Atlantic. I found it fascinating. I know that as a child my bicycle was my ticket to wonder and freedom, but as far back at the 1800’s women found them liberating and a “ticket” to their freedom. I decided to do a little more digging into this subject!
Some may say that bicycles helped women peddle the path to freedom. Why that statement may seem unlikely, bicycles really did have a rather revolutionary impact on the women’s movement in the early 20th century. Bicycles have been linked to the empowerment of women since their invention in the late 1800's. For men, the bicycle was a new thing to play with. For women, it began a new way of life. Sue Macy writing for National Geographic Magazine, points out, “To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.”
At the turn of the century, automobiles, trains and streetcars were seen more and more, primarily in urban areas. Many people still depended on horse and buggy for travel and they were expensive, required regular upkeep and most women relied on men to hitch the horses up for travel. In rural areas horses were fairly easy to keep and feed but in urban areas they were expensive, required care, feeding and stabling. Enter bicycles! They arrived on the scene and were relatively inexpensive, practical, and required no stabling and little upkeep and were available immediately for transportation needs.
Women, long accustomed to relying on men for transportation, found freedom with a bicycle. They bicycle was accessible, capable of fairly high speed and known as the velocipede. Women who rode them were known as velocipedestriennes, giving women much control over where and when they traveled.
In many ways the bicycle came to embody the spirit of change and progress that was already afoot in the 1890’s within the women’s movement. Frances Willard, leader of a Women’s movement, published a book, “A wheel within a Wheel: How I learned to Ride A Bicycle.” Willard’s health was deteriorating and riding a bicycle was her way of battling poor health. Her words however, encouraged others to learn and practice riding. She noted that women’s style was restrictive and insisted on more sensible and practical attire for female cyclists. She wrote: “A woman with [bustle] bands hanging on her hips, and dress snug about the waist and chokingly tight at the throat, with heavy trimmed skirts dragging down the back and numerous folds heating the lower part of the spine, and with tight shoes, ought to be in agony. If women ride, they must…dress more rationally… If they do this, many prejudices will melt away. Reason will gain upon precedent and ere long the comfortable, sensible, and artistic wardrobe of the rider will make the conventional style of women’s dress absurd to the eye and un-durable to the understanding.”
Of course other women also found the current fashion not only an impediment to riding a bicycle but in some cases downright dangerous. The fashion for women at that time tended toward helplessness and frailty. Consider the image of a Victorian lady: She's sickly and pale, relies on men for everything, and occasionally peeks out from behind an ornamental fan (usually before touching her wrist to her forehead and fainting). The frailty of a "lady" was such that preventing females from studying, working, voting and doing much of anything at all seemed a rational measure.Obviously, there must have been some inclination that at least part of this frailty was socially projected. A gentleman taking a trip to the market must have come across dozens of hardworking women from the lower classes. In fact, he may have employed one such woman to support the proper ladies at his home while they gossiped, blushed and passed out. But men didn't see those hardworking females as proper ladies. A proper lady was seen as weak, defenseless and entirely dependent on men.
Victorian lady rarely exercised or engaged in physical activity, which left her poorly conditioned. It was fashionable to be frail. Their garments were typically thick, exaggerating the female form while concealing the flesh. Curves were accentuated by tightly laced corsets, which, when coupled with long and heavy underskirts, greatly limited women's ability to move or even breathe. This attire was not only intended to restrict women physically, but morally, too. In a society where the accidental exposure of an ankle took on the pornographic stature of a lap dance, such dress was required to protect a lady's virtue. In fact, the term "loose" originated to describe a woman who went uncorseted, while "strait-laced" women obeyed societal dictates.
Eventually, some women began to take a stand, and, in 1888, a letter published by The Rational Dress Society—a group of women who argued for reasonable clothing—stated, "the maximum weight of under-clothing (without shoes) approved by The Rational Dress Society, does not exceed seven pounds.” Seven pounds for under clothing!! Imagine.
Women were soon changing their fashion to include lighter skirts, bloomers and even trousers! This new found freedom soon came to embody the individuality of the women who were also working toward suffrage. It gave them not only freedom but a practical mode of transportation and clothing, ease of movement and travel. Bicycles were a hit and soon came to symbolize the quintessential “New Woman” of the late 19th century. This was a progressive era and marked enormous social and cultural changes in the United States. Women were beginning to be seen as college educated, active in sports, interested in a career as well as looking for a marriage that was based on equality, and she was almost always depicted as riding a bicycle!
At the age of 80, suffragist leader, Elizabeth Cady Stanton claimed that, “the bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect, self-reliance…”. She felt that the bicycle has the power to transform the lives of women. She saw the independence that women were gaining because of the freedom the bicycle gave them as allowing for great growth potential in other areas of their character. She was a visionary. She saw that when women had the ability to be self reliant, often for the first time in their lives, they would be encouraged to be outgoing and more courageous in other areas of their lives and demanding the vote!
Anthony’s friend and fellow suffragist, Susan B. Anthony had this to say about bicycles when she was 76 years old: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
From The San Francisco Call in 1895:It really doesn't matter much where this one individual young lady is going on her wheel. It may be that she's going to the park on pleasure bent, or to the store for a dozen hairpins, or to call on a sick friend at the other side of town, or to get a doily pattern of somebody, or a recipe for removing tan and freckles. Let that be as it may. What the interested public wishes to know is, Where are all the women on wheels going? Is there a grand rendezvous somewhere toward which they are all headed and where they will some time hold a meet that will cause this wobbly old world to wake up and readjust itself?
The bicycle, as a new technology of its time, had become an enormous cultural and political force, and an emblem of women's rights. "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."