In the late 1800s, American ladies broke free of a restrictive Victorian society and started on the road to equality, due largely to one contraption: the bicycle.
When I was 10 years old, I owned a beauty of a bike. She had a banana seat upholstered in glittery red-and-silver vinyl and a moderately high sissy bar in the back. My tricked-out ride was, to use a popular word in my fifth-grade class, boss. Coasting down a steep hill in our neighborhood, I felt like I was flying. I still feel that way on my bike, and I’m in good company—12 million other women in the U.S. today ride for transportation, exercise, and fun. But these female cyclists might not realize how much the bicycles they ride today meant to women in the late 19th century.
Almost a hundred years before my bike and I flew down that hill, a woman named Maria E. Ward was similarly enamored with the bicycle and the liberation it provided. “Riding the wheel, our own powers are revealed to us,” she wrote in Bicycling for Ladies, an 1896 how-to book devoted to the subject. “The system is invigorated, the spirit is refreshed, the mind…swept of dusty cobwebs…You have conquered a new world, and exultingly you take possession of it.” She was one of thousands of women across the country who were embracing cycling as a healthy hobby. But the bicycle was much more than a modish novelty for these women. In the words of author Peter Zheutlin, “As women learned to ride bicycles they not only gained physical mobility that broadened their horizons beyond the neighborhoods in which they lived; they discovered a newfound sense of freedom of movement, a freedom previously circumscribed by the cumbersome fashions of the Victorian era as well as by Victorian sensibilities.” The wheel helped women break away from the confines of home and hearth, as they boldly pedaled forth in divided skirts, perhaps to agitate for social change.
When Ward penned her guidebook, bicycle riding was still a very new activity for women. A primitive two-wheeler known as a velocipede had been popular for a brief period in the late 1860s, but the difficulty of riding in skirts kept most women away. A decade later, the most successful bike on the market was the so-called “ordinary” bicycle, which featured an enormous front wheel nearly five feet in diameter and an absurdly tiny back wheel. The ordinary bicycle was difficult to control, hard to brake, and nearly impossible to mount in a long, heavy skirt. As a result, they were mostly ridden by young men, and were little more than a fad among the wealthy.
That all changed with the 1887 stateside debut of the English-designed “safety” bicycle. The forerunner of today’s bikes in both appearance and popularity, the safety had front and back wheels of equal size, making it easier to mount—especially for less-agile riders or those in skirts—and had a sprocket and chain attached to the rear wheel, which afforded better propulsion and braking. Pneumatic tires, invented in 1888, provided a smoother ride. Americans of both sexes adopted the safety bicycle with great enthusiasm, creating a pop-culture craze that lasted for most of the 1890s and inspired stories, songs, jokes, cartoons, and clubs. Whereas the annual output of ordinary bicycles never topped 11,000 even at its height in 1885, one million safety bicycles were produced in 1896 alone. And this time, it wasn’t just men who rode—the bicycle was so popular with women that by 1897, the League of American Wheelmen counted more than 22,000 women among its ranks, a full third of the organization’s national membership.
Yet for women, adopting this new method of transport was fraught with social and physical landmines. For one, there was a woman’s morality to consider: in particular, her sexual “innocence.” Doctors worried about the gynecological consequences for female bike riders and wrote medical journal articles with titles like “Harmful Effects of the Bicycle Upon the Girl’s Pelvis.” The problem, as they saw it, lay with the design of the bicycle saddle. If a woman rode with her weight too far forward, it might lead “to friction and heating of the parts where it is very undesirable and may lead to dangerous practices,” explained a physician in 1896. A Tennessee doctor reported “it was no uncommon thing” for a female patient of his, who obviously enjoyed dangerous practices, “to experience a sexual orgasm three or four times on a ride of one hour.” Avoiding masturbatory pleasure was one of the reasons women were counseled to sit up straight when riding. Manufacturers responded to this moral panic with crotchless or otherwise modified bicycle saddles that euphemistically promised to deliver riders from “injurious pressure.”
Not everyone was taken in by the bicycle’s so-called threat to women’s bodies. In 1896, a writer for the Chicago Daily News scoffed at the concern from the medical community, saying, “When a woman wants to learn anything or do anything useful or even have any fun there is always someone to solemnly warn her that it is her duty to keep well. Meanwhile in many states she can work in factories 10 hours a day, she can stand behind counters in badly ventilated stores from 8 o’clock to 6, she can bend over the sewing machine for about 5 cents an hour and no one cares enough to protest. But when the same women, condemned to sedentary lives indoors, find a cheap and delightful way of getting the fresh air and exercise they need so sorely there is a great hue and cry about their physical welfare.”
Heath issues aside, there was still the widespread fear that women’s newfound mobility posed its own risks to women’s morality. The most extreme manifestation of this sentiment came from Charlotte Smith, whose Boston-based Women’s Rescue League denounced bicycle riding on the grounds that it made young ladies “unwomanly and immodest” and “prevent[ed] motherhood among married women.” According to a circular the organization sent out in 1896, “Bicycling by young women has helped more than any other medium to swell the ranks of reckless girls, who finally drift into the army of outcast women of the United States.” Reckless girls and outcast women had one thing in common: that questionable contact with men to whom they weren’t married had set them on the path to perdition—contact that resulted from the freedom the bicycle afforded. Smith’s contention that bicycling led directly to harlotry was largely met with what The New York Times called “a frosty reception.”
Nevertheless, there may have been some grounds for concern, although not the way Smith proposed. Taking a bicycle ride in the 1890s meant a woman needed to negotiate public space in a way to which neither she nor the men around her were accustomed. A woman “of refinement and exquisite moral training” could find herself peddling past “uncultivated and degenerate” individuals, “whose coarse, boisterous, and immoral gestures are heard and seen while speeding along our streets and boulevards,” warned a Chicago police chief in 1899. Small boys were wont to chase after solitary female cyclists, yelling “Women suffrage!” in tones of derision.
Instructions for Lady Bikers
Photographer Alice Austen provided 34 photos for Maria E. Ward’s book, The Common Sense of Bicycling for Ladies. The photos showed women how to mount, ride, and repair their bicycles.
Critics worried that cycling would cause women to roll into a life of sin; they also fretted over what these ladies would be wearing during the process. The high bar between the seat and handlebars of the diamond-framed safety bicycle meant that a woman had to lift her leg up and over the rear of the bike to mount the saddle. This move was pegged as vulgar by tut-tutting observers. The drop-frame bike, introduced in 1888, resolved this issue by allowing a skirt-clad rider to step daintily through the frame when mounting. But regardless of the frame shape, ankle-length skirts remained problematic, as they could interfere with pedaling or become entangled in the gears and chain. In 1891, a woman in Sporting Life magazine recalled how she was once “skimming along like a bird” when she felt “an awful tug” at her skirt and hit the ground. “My dress was so tightly wound round the crank bracket that I could not get up until I had got it free.”
Women cyclists who circumvented the problem by wearing bloomers (the baggy ankle-length pantaloons made famous by women’s-rights advocate Amelia Bloomer in the mid-1850s), knickerbockers, or divided skirts were mocked on the street and criticized in the press and from the pulpit. In fact, the question of what to wear while riding was perhaps the greatest controversy surrounding women and the bicycle. That same Chicago police chief who warned “refined” women bicyclists about catcalls blamed those who wore “shorter dresses than the laws of morality and decency permit” for “inviting the improper conversations and remarks of the depraved and immoral.” The Board of Trustees of a small school district outside New York City voted in 1895 to prohibit two women teachers from riding their bicycles to and from work. The teachers wore “skirts, of course, but if we do not stop them now they will want to be in style with New York women and wear bloomers. Then how would our schoolrooms look with the lady teachers parading about among the boys and girls wearing bloomers? They might just as well wear men’s trousers.” It was a slippery slope of tortured logic: wheelwomen wore bloomers, bloomers masculinized women, and masculine women challenged men. Therefore, the bicycle was an agent of immorality.
Whether they aspired to promoting women’s rights or wearing men’s trousers, many wheelwomen readily adopted some form of “reform” clothing. The Delineator, a women’s magazine published by the Butterick pattern company, included three pages of “Bicycle Garments” in its November 1895 issue and offered readers some 50 patterns for the same. Corsets were less dangerous than skirts when it came to riding, but they hampered a woman’s ability to breathe deeply and move freely. Special bicycle corsets, “made shorter and more flexible than those for ordinary use,” were soon available for purchase. Observing the number of bicycling women decked out in knickerbockers and relaxed waistlines, more than one contemporary commentator marveled at how wheelwomen seemed to have “accepted at a jump innovations that dress reformers have been trying for years to bring into favor.”
Women’s-rights advocates were keen-ly aware of the connections between cycling outfits and women’s civil liberties. Elizabeth Cady Stanton commented in 1895, “Men found that flying coat tails were ungainly and that their baggy trousers were in the way [when cycling] so they changed their dress to suit themselves…We did not bother our heads about their cycling clothes, and why should they meddle with what we want to wear?” Susan B. Anthony even drew a connection between bloomers, bicycles, and the vote. She told the St. Louis Republican in 1895 that she was “glad to see women asserting themselves” regarding attire and applauded the woman who chose to wear bloomers, because by doing so she declared “her right to be untrammeled, not only in matters of dress but opinions as well.”
The idea that physical freedom led to mental liberation, and by extension to a political awakening, was popular—which is probably why the vision of women on bicycles terrified conservative minds. Riding the wheel, one became “alert, active, quick-sighted, and keenly alive as well as to the rights of others as to what is due yourself,” wrote Maria Ward in Bicycling for Ladies. One much-discussed cycling and women’s-rights figurehead was 24-year-old immigrant Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, who, in 1894, accepted a challenge from a men’s cycling club to circumnavigate the globe on two wheels. Rechristening herself Annie Londonderry (the name of one of her corporate sponsors), the mother of three successfully made the journey in 15 months, dressed in a men’s riding suit and carrying only a change of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver (which she pulled on some muggers in France). When she returned home, she became a writer for New York World and proclaimed, “I am a journalist and a ‘new woman,’ if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do.” A year later, Susan B. Anthony succinctly concluded that cycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
The ride to women’s freedom was no easy cruise. After Londonderry circled the globe, it still took activists another quarter century of hard work to win women’s right to vote in 1920. By that time, the bicycle had gone from cutting-edge technology to a familiar and sometimes-overlooked facet of everyday life. Of course, much has changed since then. Professional athletes and weekend warriors ride the streets in sports bras and microfiber tights, barely giving a thought to their cycling foremothers. Today, the sight of a woman on a bicycle isn’t worth an extra look—unless, of course, she’s blasting past you on a tricked-out fixie.
Article by Lynn Peril