How the Bicycle Emancipated Women

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On this date in 1920, Congress ratified the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote. To mark the occasion, we're re-running Chris Connolly's piece on the role of the bicycle in the women's movement.
Susan B. Anthony once said, "I think [bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world." A woman on a bicycle, the equal rights champion observed, presents "the picture of free and untrammeled womanhood."

Susan and her fellow 19th-century women had been severely trammeled their entire lives. Forget the glass ceiling; women in those days were trapped under the glass floor. Battles like "equal pay for equal work" were decades away. The Victorian woman's cause was more along the lines of, "We'd like to leave the house, sometimes "¦ please "¦ if it isn't too much trouble."

The fashion for women at that time tended toward helplessness and frailty. Consider the image of a Victorian lady: She's sickly and pale, relies on men for everything, and occasionally peeks out from behind an ornamental fan (usually before touching her wrist to her forehead and fainting). The frailty of a "lady" was such that preventing females from studying, working, voting and doing much of anything at all seemed a rational measure.

Obviously, there must have been some inclination that at least part of this frailty was socially projected. A gentleman taking a trip to the market must have come across dozens of hardworking women from the lower classes. In fact, he may have employed one such woman to support the proper ladies at his home while they gossiped, blushed and passed out. But men didn't see those hardworking females as proper ladies. A proper lady was seen as weak, defenseless and entirely dependent on men.

Seven Pounds of Underwear
Clearly, women haven't undergone any fundamental alterations of their physiological makeup in the last hundred years, so what allows them to live the robust, fainting-free lifestyles they do today?

Foremost, the Victorian lady rarely exercised or engaged in physical activity, which left her poorly conditioned. Secondly, it was fashionable to be frail. Just as American women in the 1950s were expected to become June Cleaver and young girls today aspire to Gwen Stefani-like independence, the Victorian woman was expected to adopt certain behaviors.

The third contributing factor to the frailty of the Victorian lady was clothing. Their garments were typically thick, exaggerating the female form while concealing the flesh. Curves were accentuated by tightly laced corsets, which, when coupled with long and heavy underskirts, greatly limited women's ability to move or even breathe. (Hence much of the fainting.)

This attire was not only intended to restrict women physically, but morally, too. In a society where the accidental exposure of an ankle took on the pornographic stature of a lap dance, such dress was required to protect a lady's virtue. In fact, the term "loose" originated to describe a woman who went uncorseted, while "strait-laced" women obeyed societal dictates.

Eventually, some women began to take a stand, and, in 1888, a letter published by The Rational Dress Society—a group of women who argued for reasonable clothing—stated, "the maximum weight of under-clothing (without shoes) approved by The Rational Dress Society, does not exceed seven pounds."

Seven pounds of underwear? An improvement? That's more than any jog bra in the world. Clearly, women needed to change their underwear. And that's where the bicycle came in.

Bloomers: A Gateway Garment?

The Gateway Garment
By the late 1880s, the bicycle's popularity really took off. For instance, in 1880, a group of early cycling advocates called the League of American Wheelmen had a membership of 40; by 1898, its ranks had bloated to nearly 200,000. Cycling was so popular that in 1896 The New York Journal of Commerce estimated bicycling was costing theaters, restaurants and other businesses over 100 million dollars per year. Considering the way the bicycle was exploding in popularity, it was only natural that women should get in on the act.

victorian-horse.jpgBefore bicycles came along, the horse was the best means of individual travel. Of course, women's access to horses was limited. Horses were dangerous and difficult to control; conventional medical wisdom suggested that riding them could damage a woman's genitals. Women were supposed to ride sidesaddle, with both legs hanging off one side. In that unnatural position, women were unable to ride for long distances, reinforcing the idea that they shouldn't be riding at all.

Bicycles, by comparison, were easy to manipulate. There was no reason a woman couldn't get on a bike and sedately pedal farther from her home than she'd ever been before. No reason, that is, other than her cumbersome attire and the convention that if she did so, she'd either have her virtue corrupted or die of exhaustion.

In order for women to take part in the new craze without becoming entangled in the bike's chain, they needed to wear shorter skirts or even (gasp!) bifurcated garments called bloomers. It was also necessary that they leave the house and exert themselves physically—all activities previously considered unladylike.

The severity of the outcry against women participating in these activities is proof of their effectiveness. The brave women who donned rational dress were criticized, denied access to public places and widely mocked in the media. A satirical poem in one U.S. paper, for instance, suggested bloomers were a sort of "gateway garment," the wearers of which might go on to participate in such dastardly pursuits as business or reading.

Female cyclists were often accosted verbally and physically as they rode. Emma Eades, one of the first women to ride a bike in London, was attacked with bricks and stones. Men and women alike demanded that she go home where she belonged and behave properly.

Many people feared that the unprecedented mobility the bicycle allowed women would corrupt them morally. In fact, a business called The Cyclist's Chaperon Association provided "gentlewomen of good social position to conduct ladies on bicycle excursions and tours." These gentlewomen had to satisfy strict criteria to qualify as guardians of virtue. They were married ladies, widows or unmarried ladies over 30. They needed three personal references, two from ladies of unquestionable social position, and another from a clergyman of the church—all this to protect women from becoming morally debased by their bikes.

Even in the face of this overwhelming social condemnation, cycling groups persevered and eventually wrought fundamental changes in society's view. Women did get out on their bikes and, to everyone's surprise, didn't faint or commit egregious moral atrocities. In fact, they discovered what everyone who rides a bike learns: It makes you more fit, more relaxed, and more aware. Women gained increased self-sufficiency, better physical conditioning, and, as a bonus, won some freedom from their restrictive clothing and its attendant social bonds.

The Vehicle of Women's Lib
The 1900 United States Census Report, released more than 20 years after the introduction of the bicycle, said, "Few articles ever used by man have created so great a revolution in social conditions as the bicycle." For women, this held especially true.

jacquie.jpgThe bicycle continues to endear itself to free thinkers. Even today, it's the centerpiece of many reform movements. Jacquie Phelan (pictured), for instance, is a feminist mountain biker who founded WOMBATS, the Women's Mountain Bike and Tea Society. A three-time world champion voted one of the 10 best mountain bikers of all time, Phelan is a tireless warrior in the fight for equality. She advocates two prices for bikes based on the 59 cents women make to every dollar earned by a man. (She was inspired to take action when she finished sixth in a race and was mistakenly given the $400 dollar men's prize instead of the $42 allotted to the female finisher.)

As the bicycle continues to lend itself to causes of all kinds, it is important to remember its first battle. Liberating is a word easily associated with cycling. Flying down a tree-lined road with the wind in your face is certainly a liberating experience, but for early female cyclists, a simple bike ride was liberating in a much more significant way.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine, available wherever brilliant (or lots of) magazines are sold.
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August 18, 2008 - 5:10am
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