How the Bicycle Accelerated the Women’s Rights Movement (Circa 1890)

The ear­ly his­to­ry of the bicy­cle did not promise great things—or any­thing, really—for women at the dawn of the 19th cen­tu­ry. A two-wheeled bicy­cle-like inven­tion, for exam­ple, built in 1820, “was more like an agri­cul­tur­al imple­ment in con­struc­tion than a bicy­cle,” one bicy­cle his­to­ry notes. Made of wood, the “hob­by hors­es” and veloci­pedes of cycling’s first decades rolled on iron wheels. Their near-total lack of sus­pen­sion led to the epi­thet “bone­shak­er.” Some had steer­ing mech­a­nisms, some did not. Brak­ing was gen­er­al­ly accom­plished with the feet, or a crowd of pedes­tri­ans, a tree, or horse-drawn cart.

Lad­dish clubs formed and raced around Lon­don, Paris, and New York. No girls allowed. The ear­li­est bicy­cles for women were rid­den side-sad­dle…. But despite all this, it is entire­ly fair to say that few tech­nolo­gies in his­to­ry, ancient or mod­ern, have done more to free women from domes­tic toilage and bring them careen­ing into the pub­lic square, to the dis­may of the Vic­to­ri­an estab­lish­ment.

Bicy­cles “gave women a new lev­el of trans­porta­tion inde­pen­dence that per­plexed news­pa­per colum­nists” and the gen­er­al pub­lic, writes Adri­enne LaFrance at The Atlantic, quot­ing a San Fran­cis­co jour­nal­ist 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?

Women cyclists were seen as the advanced guard of a com­ing war. “Square­ly in the cen­ter of this bat­tle was one tool,” notes the Vox video above, “that com­plete­ly changed the game.” Both Susan B. Antho­ny and Eliz­a­beth Cady Stan­ton are cred­it­ed with declar­ing that ‘woman is rid­ing to suf­frage on the bicy­cle,’ a line that was print­ed and reprint­ed in news­pa­pers at the turn of the cen­tu­ry,” LaFrance writes. By the 1890s, every­one rode bicy­cles, the first Tour de France was only a few years away, and cycling tech­nol­o­gy had come so far that it would help cre­ate both the car—with its inno­v­a­tive pneu­mat­ic tires and spoked wheels—and the air­plane, through the exper­i­ments of Ohio bicy­cle-mak­ers the Wright Broth­ers.

The new bikes, orig­i­nal­ly called “safe­ty bikes” to con­trast them with giant-wheeled pen­ny-far­things that were briefly the norm, may not have devel­oped gear­ing sys­tems yet, but they were far lighter, cheap­er, and eas­i­er to ride (com­par­a­tive­ly) than the bicy­cles that had come before, which began as play­things for wealthy young men-about-town. The Nation­al Women’s His­to­ry Muse­um describes the scene:

At the turn of the cen­tu­ry, trains, auto­mo­biles, and street­cars were grow­ing in use in urban areas, but peo­ple still large­ly depend­ed on hors­es for trans­porta­tion. Hors­es, and espe­cial­ly car­riages, were expen­sive and women often had to depend on men to hitch up the hors­es for trav­el…. Sur­round­ed by inef­fi­cient and expen­sive forms of trav­el, bicy­cles arrived in cities with the promise of prac­ti­cal­i­ty and afford­abil­i­ty. Bicy­cles were rel­a­tive­ly inex­pen­sive and pro­vid­ed men and women with indi­vid­ual trans­porta­tion for busi­ness, sports, or recre­ation.

Not only did bicy­cles give women equal access to per­son­al rapid tran­sit, but they did so for women of many dif­fer­ent social class­es. The lev­el­ing effects were sig­nif­i­cant, as were the changes to women’s fash­ion. Exposed calves (though still encased in var­i­ous cycling boots) pre­pared the way for trousers. Tra­di­tion­al­ists were out­raged, cease­less­ly mocked women on bikes, as they mocked the suf­frag­ists, and pushed for restric­tions on full free­dom of move­ment. “Whilst the 1890s saw dis­cours­es of mid­dle-class fem­i­nin­i­ty become rec­on­ciled with the notion of women on bicy­cles,” The Vic­to­ri­an Cyclist points out, “learn­ing to ride a bicy­cle required mid­dle-class women to care­ful­ly nav­i­gate their way through a set of high­ly con­ser­v­a­tive and rigid gen­der norms.”

Despite media efforts to tamp down or tame the rev­o­lu­tion­ary poten­tial of the bicy­cle for women, the mar­ket that made the machines saw no prob­lem with increas­ing sales. Bicy­cle poster art and adver­tis­ing from the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry is dom­i­nat­ed by women cyclists, who are por­trayed as ordi­nary ram­blers about town, hip adven­tur­ers, ultra-mod­ern “New Women,” and, per­haps less pro­gres­sive­ly, nude god­dess­es. Whether we call it Gild­ed Age, Belle Epoque, or Fin de siè­cle, the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry pro­duced a trans­porta­tion rev­o­lu­tion that was also, through no par­tic­u­lar­ly con­scious design of the mak­ers of the bicy­cle, a rev­o­lu­tion in wom­en’s rights and thus human free­dom writ large.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Library of Con­gress Dig­i­tizes Over 16,000 Pages of Let­ters & Speech­es from the Women’s Suf­frage Move­ment, and You Can Help Tran­scribe Them

Odd Vin­tage Post­cards Doc­u­ment the Pro­pa­gan­da Against Women’s Rights 100 Years Ago

How Bicy­cles Can Rev­o­lu­tion­ize Our Lives: Case Stud­ies from the Unit­ed States, Nether­lands, Chi­na & Britain

The First 100 Years of the Bicy­cle: A 1915 Doc­u­men­tary Shows How the Bike Went from Its Clunky Birth in 1818, to Its Endur­ing Design in 1890

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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  • EB says:

    When­ev­er I see arti­cles on this top­ic I always won­der: what hap­pened? When did bicy­cles go back to strict­ly hob­by ter­ri­to­ry — was it the advent of the auto­mo­bile? And when did they cross over from being asso­ci­at­ed with women to now being asso­ci­at­ed pri­mar­i­ly with men? Sure, there are women cyclists, but bicy­cling, unlike field hock­ey or horse­back rid­ing, is not a “female” sport. I always hear about the advent of cycling, but these accounts rarely fol­low the sport up to the present day.

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