Tomorrow is International Women’s Day which got me thinking about the role of the bicycle in improving women’s lives. The campaign theme for this year is “Be Bold For Change” which fits beautifully with the role the humble bike has had in forging change for women.
In a democratic country like mine, women take our freedoms for granted but it hasn’t always been so easy. We have our forebears to thank for much of what we enjoy. Strangely there are many parallels between Victorian society and the restrictions women have in countries in the Middle East and Africa today. And there are many great stories coming from those countries about women riding bicycles as a way of expressing themselves.
I found a great article from Wisconsin in the US so I’ve borrowed some of the content with a few edits.
In the 19th century in America and other western nations, bicycles became emblematic of women’s bid for freedom and self-determination. Riding a bicycle gave women new mobility and challenged Victorian restrictions on female behaviour. A woman on a bicycle no longer needed to depend on a man for transportation. She could come and go as she pleased. Enthusiasm for biking and women’s rights became so entwined that famed woman’s rights leader Susan B. Anthony once said that the bicycle “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
Many women in the US state of Wisconsin, like women all over the country, took to the bike immediately. A woman named Edith Shuler demonstrated an early bicycle model known as the velocipede in Milwaukee through the spring of 1869, becoming an early ambassador for the sport.
Wisconsin-raised Frances Willard, leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, even published a book about her efforts to learn to ride a bike in her fifties. It took her about three months of daily practice to conquer “this most mysterious animal.” It was a process of mastery that that Willard used as a metaphor for women’s mastery of their own lives. Her enthusiasm for the bicycle inspired other women to pick up the sport.
“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,” proclaimed Munsey’s Magazine in 1896.
All kinds of claims were made to discourage women from taking to the bike. Some critics warned that the bicycle would harm women’s health. The sensitivity and fragility of women was a common theme. Women’s magazines often featured doctors warning of the dangers the bike posed to women’s reproductive organs. Others said the bicycle would get young women into trouble by allowing them to stray further from watching eyes during courtship. A woman on a bike was a threat to the social order.
It wasn’t just men who felt this way. Charlotte Smith, an outspoken advocate for women on other issues, called the bicycle “the devil’s advance agent morally and physically” in 1896. She clearly wasn’t acquainted with the sisterhood!
The freedom that many women found on the bike took many forms, not the least of which was clothing. The restrictive corsets and long skirts that women wore were not exactly conducive to pedalling. Cycling required a more practical form of clothing. “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,” wrote Willard in her book.
Those women that did adopt a new outfit, often loose fitting trousers known as bloomers, earned the scorn and mockery of cartoonists and critics who viewed a woman in pants as unfeminine and scandalous.
The controversy seemed only to spur women’s interest in the bicycle. And once women started riding, they never stopped.
What have you seen that shows the role of the bicycle in improving women’s lives? Share your thoughts via comments or the Women Who Cycle Facebook page.