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Bicycles and the Emancipation of Women

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

But the man is still in charge doing the pedalling and steering.

But the man is still in charge doing the pedalling and steering.

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:

“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.

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, untrammeled 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?”

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On the other side of the Atlantic, the Reverend Samuel Stanley rose to the pulpit of a 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.

Rational Dress

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:

“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.

Bonus Factoids

  • 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 was 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.
Tessie Reynolds.

Tessie Reynolds.


“The bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect, self-reliance . . . ”

— American suffragist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1895

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor


Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on July 22, 2018:

Hi Katharine. Thank you for your kind words; glad you enjoyed the article.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on July 21, 2018:

Miebakagh you are too kind.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 20, 2018:

HI Katharine, Mr. Ruperts hubs are always superb. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Katharine L Sparrow from Massachusetts, USA on July 20, 2018:

Excellent, excellent! Bravo! This is a fascinating piece, jam-packed with facts and the videos are so cool! What a great idea for an article, I had never even thought about the bicycle in terms of women in history! That's the sort of thing that makes a superb article, something that's always been there, but you never really considered it as a "topic" before you read the article! Well done, well done!

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 20, 2018:

Hello Taylor, as a boy, I had a bicycle and like riding it always. This article really interest me and hold my attention.

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