During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women began to escape some of their restrictions by riding bicycles. Despite strong opposition from men, women cycled on, and the bicycle became an instrument of change that subverted the status quo and became a powerful symbol of women’s emancipation. In this Guest Post, Andrew McLaughlin tells us all about the extraordinary role played by bicycles in women’s emancipation.
To quote Susan B. Anthony, “the bicycle has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world.” She would go on to write the following:
“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.”
As Anthony wrote those words, women in Great Britain and North America saw the bicycle as an instrument of change and saw the act of cycling as something of a rallying cry for the whole of the suffragette movement. Affording women unprecedented freedoms in the latter part of the 19th century and into the early 20th, the bicycle, like the broomstick before it, developed a sordid reputation for its association with the unchaste and the seditious. But it was precisely this subversion of the status quo that made the bicycle such a powerful symbol for women’s emancipation.
An Important Change in Bicycle Technology
In about 1885 (the actual year depends on your metric) the “Safety” bicycle made a proud debut. Unlike the Penny Farthings of yester-year, with their enormous pedal-wheel, Safeties had a chain drive, even-sized wheels, a diamond-type frame, and were much more accessible to the layperson. Indeed, as The Bearings (an American cyclist magazine) put it in 1894, “the Safety bicycle fills a much-needed want for women in any station of life/ It knows no class distinction, is within reach of all, and rich and poor alike have the opportunity of enjoying this popular and healthful exercise.”
The Bearings may have been a tad overzealous when they claimed that the sport was open to women of any station (a bicycle of this type cost as much as a carthorse, thrice as much as a mule, or something on the order of $1,700 in today’s currency) but it’s certainly true that these bicycles were open to women in a way that the penny farthing had not been.
At the time, it was unthinkable to imagine a lady sitting astride something. For centuries, a demure lady would sit side-saddle when on horseback, but the necessity of pedaling made this impossible. To even imply that a lady had legs that might part was cause for the highest degree of moral panic in certain circles. To mitigate this, there was a brief period when ungainly screens were on the market (that a lady might use when cycling, lest her ankle be glimpsed) as well as a variety of extremely uncomfortable seats, perforated like a cheese-grater, for reasons that aren’t worth restating here. Suffice it to say that these addenda did not thrive on the open market.
Women were openly and frequently cautioned against bicycling. While it was certainly seen as unladylike, there was a more pressing issue: women’s health and marriageability (and at the time, the two were so intertwined as to make the distinction meaningless).
Women were cautioned against riding too far from the urban center, lest they miss the chance to be courted. They were cautioned against developing “bicycle face” a tired, haggard, dust-encrusted visage that would make them seem undesirable to prospective suitors.
Women weren’t meant to travel at those velocities, so men said, lest their uteruses be damaged by the inertial strain. (If anyone’s counting, the same argument was made of horses, trains, trams, cars, and aeroplanes, so far, all with the same core purpose, and the pressures of excessive cycling actually have a much more detrimental impact on male reproductive health owing to the unhelpful placement of the prostate gland.)
A woman riding a bicycle, embracing a source of liberation and power, was feared like a witch, as though the cycling would deprive her of her moral center and lead her into hedonistic lesbianism (the horror!) as she developed and embraced her femininity outside the control of good virtuous men.
Each and every one of those complaints is nonsense, of course, but they bespeak a deeper fear. 19th century women in Western Civilization were very much controlled by the men of the era, often through soft restrictions. Women were expected to wear corsets, which inhibited them physically. Women were expected to run a household, raise children, cook food, and follow a variety of other strictures which kept them busy, and kept them out of civic involvement. The suffragette movement can be thought of as the uncomfortable participation by women in civic governance in one way or another, and women riding bicycles, women discarding the status quo, was a clear and concrete example of this.
A woman with a vehicle can move where she pleases, wearing unchaste attire (women wearing bloomers and shorter skirts came into fashion at just about the same time, and they’d have had you believe that it had been simple coincidence) and, most importantly, choosing her own path.
This was unsettling, frightening, and downright contrary to the moralism of the era, but it was also a perfect metaphor for the plight of women as a whole. The freedom to move was akin to the freedom to leave, and it set society into a frenzied panic.
Women, for the first time, were leaving their homes, quite literally under their own power, and venturing off into the super-civic wild-lands. The symbolism (as women cycled, they desired the vote, civic freedom, bodily autonomy, and a number of other rights that they’d been hitherto denied) was hard to ignore.
Suffragettes including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cody Stanton, Anna Adams Gordon and Annie Londonderry prominently included cycling in their protests. In the UK, Charlotte Stopes (the Shakespearean scholar, and mother of birth control advocate Marie Stopes) and Charlotte Payne-Townshend (wife of George Bernard Shaw) used cycling as a signal of the ideological distance between liberated women, like themselves, and housebound women who hadn’t yet joined the movement.
Lasting Legacy of Bicycles
Aside from the obvious changes in the status of women, like getting the vote in the early 20th century, cycling brought about a number of other changes. (The year when women got the vote varies, even within Canada. By province, women could vote in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in 1916, Ontario in 1917, Nova Scotia in 1918, New Brunswick in 1919, PEI in 1922, and Québec in 1940.)
Flappers, for instance, wouldn’t have looked quite the same way without the inspiration of female cyclists behind them. The unrestrictive clothing, the shorter hair, and even the flushed athleticism of their ilk was pioneered by women on bicycles. Rose Macaulay wrote, in 1923, that “[cycling was] transforming clothes.” She would go on to describe how “Short jackets and cloth caps are coming in. And my dear – bloomers are to be seen in the land!… We’re all getting most thrillingly fin-de-siècle!”
But these sentiments weren’t entirely unprecedented. As early as 1896, H.G. Wells wrote a satire called The Wheels of Chance. Though technically a satire, it masked a lot of truth when it said, of a woman cycling wearing practical attire (or “rational dress”, including a button-up skirt), that she “didn’t look a bit unwomanly. […] How fine she had looked, flushed with the exertion of riding, breathing a little fast, but elastic and active! Talk about your ladylike, homekeeping [sic] girls with complexions like cold veal!”
No one will say that the bicycle gave women the vote or ended oppression or broke the glass ceiling, but it’s fair to say that bicycles, more than any other development of Western Civilization thereto, gave women control over their physical health, gave women autonomy and self-direction, and eventually inspired them to claim their independence in the workforce.
What the Future Holds
Truly an instrument of change, the bicycle’s full legacy is not yet written. Cycling continues to have a profound impact on fashion, custom, and even law. As our friends at Bay Area Bicycle Law will readily attest, the humble bicycle is still a font of controversy and tribulation.
As the bicycle liberates us all, we find ourselves under increasing pressure to ensure that cycling isn’t pushed to the margins and that the bicycle, that great equalizer, isn’t displaced from its hard-won place in our society.
About our Guest Poster, Andrew McLoughlin
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