Bicycles and the Emancipation of Women
Until the late 19th century, the horse and buggy was the primary means of transportation and the driver was almost always male. Then, the “Golden Age of Bicycles” arrived at the end of the Victorian era. Women no longer needed men to hitch up the horses to get around town. As noted by the National Women’s History Museum notes, “The bicycle, in many ways, came to embody the spirit of change and progress that the women’s rights movement sought to engender.”
Evolution of the Bicycle
Various impractical designs for bicycles started to emerge early in the 19th century.
In 1817, the Baron Karl von Drais in Germany invented the laufmaschine, literally the running machine. The rider sat between two wheels and propelled himself along by walking or running. Having attained a decent speed, the rider could lift his legs off the ground and coast for a while.
Another vehicle using similar principles was also known, somewhat unpromisingly, as a boneshaker. Other devices, such as high-wheelers (penny-farthings in the United Kingdom) attached pedals directly to the wheel.
But, the cycling revolution had to wait for John Kemp Starley to wheel his “safety bicycle” out of his workshop in 1885. The Rover had a chain drive that powered the rear wheel and a front wheel that could be steered.
This remains the basic bicycle design still in use today.
Backlash to Female Bicyclists
In France, women competed with men in road racing as early as the 1860s, but there was less acceptance of females on two wheels in Britain.
Emma Eades was one of the first women in Britain to ride a bicycle but she was subjected to obscene insults from men. Some even took to throwing bricks at her. She tried to disguise her gender by cutting her hair and wearing divided skirts when she went out for jaunts with her colleagues in a mostly male cycling club.
“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 free, untrammelled womanhood.”
American suffragist Susan B. Anthony
In 1892, the magazine Cycling vented its annoyance at the idea of women on bicycles. They were forced, said the magazine, to adopt inelegant postures and suggested a woman’s desire for speed would lead to a demand for “… a voice in the government of her country.”
“Well. We can’t have that can we Lord Neanderthal?”
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Reverend Samuel Stanley rose to the pulpit of Methodist Church one evening in October 1893. He had a grumble on his mind over one of his parishioners, a Mrs. Burrows. The Binghamton, New York woman had bought – oh horrors – a bicycle. This was, the aggrieved preacher said, unchristian, unladylike, and a disgrace to the church.
Women of the late 19th century were attired in voluminous dresses with layers of petticoats, had huge bustles attached to their backsides, and were imprisoned in whalebone corsets. This was not suitable clothing to wear when mounting a bicycle. Indeed, newspapers of the day gloried in giving gruesome accounts of women coming to grief when their clothing got tangled in the machinery of the bicycle.
So, a movement began that called for “rational dress.” It was met with resistance.
Two correspondents for The Lady’s Realm huffed and puffed about the bicycling fashions adopted by French women. In an 1897 article Mrs. Eric Pritchard and Emily Glenton observed that “A bicycling turn-out in Paris is typical of all that is vulgar and ugly, and it is a riddle to our minds to think how a Frenchwoman, so ultra-particular in every respect as regards dress, can mount her bicycle with a knowledge that she is looking at her very worst.”
So what was this costume that could cause such high dudgeon and unspoken yet clearly expressed “Harrumphs?”
It was the divided skirt worn over cloth leggings or bloomers, the so-called rational dress. The Bygrave Convertible Skirt designed by Alice Bygrave in 1895 was a huge hit.
Writing about this in BBC History, Julie Wheelwright comments that “… the advocates of rational dress were convinced such costumes would herald women’s physical and mental freedom.”
Another promoter of rational dress was Lillian Campbell Davidson. In 1894, she wrote that English ladies were “… all eagerly awaiting woman’s emancipation from the bondage of the skirt.”
But, acceptance was not always lovingly extended. Sociologist Dr. Kat Jungnickel writes in BBC History that many of the women sporting rational dress “… were subjected to rocks, sticks, and rude remarks, and denied entry into cafes and hotels.”
More Than Just Bicycling
Of course, it’s overstating the case to suggest that two-wheeled transportation led to equal rights for women; it was more a symbol of that struggle than a cause of it.
As the National Women’s History Museum notes, “Bicycle riding came to embody the individuality women were working toward with the suffrage movement. It also gave women a mode of transportation and clothing that allowed for freedom of movement and of travel.”
Not everyone was firmly rooted in the past with outmoded views of women. In 1893, a journalist with The Northern Wheeler applauded the fact that “Woman has taken her stand and her seat in the saddle, and like the author of the historic phrase, we men can only say – ‘This is not a revolt, it is a revolution.' I am tolerably certain that the net result will be that woman will take her true position as man’s equal.”
It required women of considerable courage to brave the opprobrium of society and challenge the entrenched views about a woman’s place. By riding bicycles they were making a statement that change is coming and you'd better get used to it.
It’s said that Leonardo da Vinci sketched a design for a bicycle in the 15th century. However, some historians say the sketch was produced by one of da Vinci’s students or that it is a fake.
According to the BBC’s Quite Interesting “The invention of the bicycle increased the average distance between the birthplaces of spouses in England from one mile to 30 miles.”
At the age of 16, Tessie Reynolds entered a road race from London to Brighton and back again, a distance of 120 miles. She completed the 1893 ride in eight hours and 30 minutes. But, Cycling magazine decried her choice of rational clothing as “… of a most unnecessary masculine nature and scantiness … we know nothing is more calculated to give cycling for women a setback …” There were lots more of a similar nature. But the negative publicity was latched onto by the suffragette movement, which hailed her ride as a significant moment in the drive for emancipation.
- “Pedaling the Path to Freedom.” Kenna Howat, National Women’s History Museum, June 27, 2017
- “History of the Bicycle.” Bicyclehistory.net, undated.
- “London and Paris Fashions.” Mrs. Eric Pritchard and Emily Glenton, The Lady’s Realm, 1897.
- “Women on the Move: Cycling and the Rational Dress Movement.” Aaron Cripps, January 30, 2015.
- “Revolution.” Julie Wheelwright, BBC History, July 2000.
- “19th Century Cycling.” Kat Jungnickel, BBC History, June 2018.
“The bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect, self-reliance …”
American suffragist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1895