How the Bicycle Emancipated Women

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

Two ladies pose in riding habits
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Before 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.

The bicycle continues to endear itself to free thinkers. Even today, it's the centerpiece of many reform movements. Jacquie Phelan, 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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Winston Churchill Once Got a Doctor's Note So That He Could Drink Alcohol in Prohibition-Era America

 Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Winston Churchill never went long without pouring himself a drink, even while traveling throughout Prohibition-era America. As producer and photographer Meredith Frost pointed out on Twitter recently, the future British prime minister and World War II leader got a doctor’s note in January 1932 which claimed he could drink an “indefinite” quantity of alcohol—federal laws be damned—to facilitate his “post-accident convalescence.” He had been struck by a car while on a speaking tour in New York in December 1931, which caused him chest pain in the immediate aftermath. He also suffered bouts of depression amid the aftershock, and it reportedly took him two months to fully recover.

Unfortunately for Churchill, Prohibition didn’t end until 1933. In fact, last week (December 5) marked the 85th anniversary of the repeal. He didn’t let that stop him, though. He admitted he once went to a speakeasy—"as a social investigator," of course.

This wasn’t the only time that Churchill refused to play by the rules insofar as alcohol was concerned. Once, after being told he shouldn’t drink or smoke during a meeting with a Muslim king, he replied through an interpreter, “My rule of life prescribed as an absolute sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after, and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them.”

However, several historical accounts have argued that Churchill's drinking was for show and that he wasn’t actually an alcoholic. “It has been said that Winston used alcohol as a prop to his persona, rather like the cigars and pet bulldog, and that he rarely got monkey-arsed, or reached the falling-down, slurred-words state,” author Robert Sellers writes in An A-Z of Hellraisers: A Comprehensive Compendium of Outrageous Insobriety. “Total inebriation was something he abhorred, which says much for what must have been a steel constitution.”

The Christmas Book Flood: Iceland’s Literature-Loving Holiday Tradition

iStock.com/Viktor_Gladkov
iStock.com/Viktor_Gladkov

In Iceland, the most popular Christmas gifts aren't the latest iProducts or kitchen gadgets. They're books. Each year, Iceland celebrates what’s known as “Jólabókaflóðið:” the annual Yule Book Flood.

The holiday season is the Black Friday of the Icelandic publishing world—but it’s not just about one day. According to Reader’s Digest, at the beginning of November, each household in Iceland gets a copy of the Bokatidindi, the Iceland Publishers Association’s catalog of all the books that will be published that year, giving residents a chance to pick out holiday books for their friends and family. September to November marks Icelandic publishers’ biggest season, and many sell the majority of their yearly stock leading up to Christmas. Even grocery stores become major booksellers during the Book Flood season.

The Jólabókaflóðið (pronounced YO-la-bok-a-flothe) tradition dates back to post-World War II economic policies. Iceland separated from Denmark in 1918, and didn’t become a fully autonomous republic until 1944. During the Great Depression, the country created a rigid, intricate system of import restrictions, and its protectionist policies continued after the war. High inflation and strict rations on imported goods made it difficult for Icelanders to get their hands on many products. The one imported product that was relatively easy to get? Paper. As a result, books became the nation’s default gift purchase, and they still are, more than half a century later.

The "flood" in Christmas Book Flood has more to do with the deluge of books hitting bookstores than it does a flood of books flowing onto individual bookshelves. To take advantage of the tradition, most hardback books published in Iceland come out in the months leading up to Christmas, when Icelanders will be purchasing them for friends and family. (Cheaper paperbacks often come out a few months later, since people are more apt to buy those for themselves rather than their loved ones, according to The Reykjavik Grapevine’s Hildur Knútsdóttir.)

While family traditions vary from household to household, most Icelanders unwrap a book on December 24, according to Reader’s Digest. Some people get a book for every member of their family, while others do a swap exchange where everyone brings one title and everyone gets to pick one from the pile. After the exchange, many people cozy up with their new volume and get reading, preferably in bed, with chocolate.

As Icelandic writer Alda Sigmundsdóttir explained in a blog post in 2008, people in Iceland “will typically describe the pinnacle of enjoyment as lying in bed eating konfekt [filled chocolates] and reading one of the books they received under the tree. Later, at the slew of Christmas parties that inevitably follow, the Christmas books will be a prominent topic of conversation, and post-Yule the newspapers are filled with evaluations of which books had the best and worst titles, best and worst covers, etc.” Sounds like a pretty good tradition to us.

It’s not surprising that Iceland places such high importance on giving and receiving books. The country reads and publishes more books per capita than any other nation in the world, and one in 10 Icelanders have published a book themselves. (There’s an Icelandic adage, “ad ganga med bok I maganum,” that means “everyone gives birth to a book.” Well, technically it means “everyone has a book in their stomach,” but same idea.)

But the glut of books that flood the Icelandic market during the latter months of the year may not be as completely joyful as it sounds, some critics warn—at least not when it comes to the stability of the publishing market. Iceland is a nation of just 338,000 people, and there are more books than there are people to buy them. Some publishers, faced with a lack of space to store the unsold books, have had to resort to destroying unpurchased stock at the end of the holiday season. But marketing books outside of Yuletime is a relatively budding practice, one that Icelandic presses are still adapting to. It’s hard to beat the prospect of curling up after Christmas dinner with a freshly opened book and a bunch of chocolates, after all.

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