You’re probably familiar with the fact that in 1920, after a long battle, women finally won the right to vote with the passing of the 19th amendment. You have also heard about the bra burnings of the 60s and the jingle, “You’ve come a long way baby,” accompanied by a picture of a modern woman of the 70s next to a picture of a Victorian-clad lady. What you may not know, however, is that the women’s movement started long before these occurrences, and it started with the bicycle!
In the 1890s the bicycle went from being a fad for the rich to a hobby that spanned all socio-economic classes. If fact, one-third of all those in the market for a bike were female. These women would prove to play an integral role in the struggle for women’s rights.
Susan B. Anthony, who dedicated her life to the women’s suffrage movement, is noted for saying, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling…I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride on a wheel. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”
It wasn’t just the feeling of freedom that cycling offered. The women of that era were used to wearing tightly cinched corsets and long heavy skirts. These clothes were found to be unsafe and too cumbersome to cycle in. This led to the need to put away the corsets and hang up the long skirts in favor of loose fitting trousers with shorter, knee-length skirts. Thus the bloomer was born! This new mode of dress was seen as improper for women as was their very willingness to ride on bicycles. Many men thought that if females “had” to ride, it should only be with chaperones who could help keep them “off the road to down-hill temptation.”
Cycle they continued and it proved to enhance a woman’s sense of self-reliance and self-worth. Frances Williard, leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, worked hard to master riding at the age of 53. In doing so she said that, “…the bicycle would lead to more equitable gender relationships.” She also noted, “We saw with satisfaction, the great advantage in good fellowship and mutual understanding between men and women who take the road together, sharing its hardships and rejoicing in the poetry of motion.”
Bicycling allowed more freedom for women. On a bike they could get out of the house, allowing them to see the world, visit others, and attend social and political meetings. Women were thus “liberated from their lives of domesticity and isolation.”
Perhaps the topic of women and bicycles is best summed up by Julie Husband and Jim O’Loughlin, both professors of English at the University of Northern Iowa: “In the 1890s the bicycle was not just a toy or even just a sport; it was a means through which changing concepts of freedom and femininity,–and of course, exercise,–were realized.”