‘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 freedom, untrammeled.’–Susan B. Anthony
Susan B. Anthony was an American women’s rights activist who played a significant role in the women’s suffrage movement. She believed women should be able to enjoy sports, education and be given the right to focus on their career if they wanted, like their male counterparts. Her statement is as accurate as a Swiss time-piece. Even today, there is a strong sense of freedom related to cycling.
How about you? Have you ever thought about what the invention of a bicycle has done for us?
A bicycle has been with us for over two hundred years. But it wasn’t developed into a form resembling today’s one until the 1880s. By coincidence, it appeared along with the first wave of feminism. It became popular in the 1890s, first just for leisure among the upper classes, following by middle-class working men using it as a convenient means of transport.
And so, the new vehicle drew the attention of women, who now wanted to escape the mundane and start exploring the world by themselves. Whether it was pedalling around the town or going on longer trips through villages and countryside, it was the first time they could be out without the company of chaperones. Yet, it was still considered dangerous for them and often wasn’t approved. Although today, cycling is believed to be much safer than walking.
Cycling was also the first opportunity for women to practice sports. Various guide books were published to encourage them to ride, such as Lady Cycling: What to Wear and How to Ride by F. J. Erskine.
The then-female attire — stockings, tight corsets, and heavy dresses — was demanding. And it was nearly impossible to wear those on a bike. It was dangerous too, as the skirt could get caught in the wheels or in the chain. But more practical clothing was considered immodest and unfeminine. Despite the odds, the ladies’ newfound love in cycling brought some revolutionary apparel.
Those were, among others, the traditionally mocked bloomers and cycling-friendly skirts. But the most remarkable pieces were convertible dresses, which allowed women to secretly switch from a walking outfit to sportswear.
Don’t get me wrong, the process of allowing women to go out there and cycle on their own wasn’t that easy. There were still both men and women who disapproved of the novel trend. The Canadian journalist Kit Coleman, who later became one of the first female war correspondents, said:
‘No girl over the age of 39 should be allowed to wheel. It is immoral. Unfortunately, it is older girls who are ardent wheelers. They love to cavort and careen above the spokes, twirling and twisting in a manner that must remind them of long-dead dancing days.’
There was also some serious discussion about the safety of cycling and its effect on sexual health in particular. It was a common concern that riding a bicycle might cause sexual arousal. Female cyclists were recommended to cut out the middle of the seat to prevent rubbing the lady parts. And a one-side-paddles bike was even developed! Other concerns included that women could exhaust themselves with too much cycling. After all, they had better things to do, right?
Luckily, those times are long gone, and a bicycle turned into something that nearly everyone can afford and ride. But next time you go for a spin, remember that it’s also a symbol of female independence and freedom.