Introduction
Early Bicycles
Bicycle Touring
Cycling in Fiction
Women Awheel
Cycling Music
 
Credits

 

Women Awheel

'Velocipedism' (1870)
"Female Velocipedism," from The Ferret, March 22, 1870.
Changes made to the bicycle's design in the 1880s resulted in a product that was both safer and easier to ride. The new design appealed to women as much as men, and part of the reason that so many bicycles were sold at the turn of the century was the growing popularity of cycling among women. Women's clothing styles at the end of the nineteenth century, however, made riding even "ladies' bicycles" difficult, if not impossible, and special cycling clothes had to be developed. Billowing skirts were out and bloomers were in, and a storm of controversy swept across Europe and America. Many people were shocked by the sight of women appearing in public in men's clothing, revealing parts of their bodies that had previously been a mystery to everyone but their husbands.
As one Victorian newspaper commented, "So long as [bicycle] riding was confined to the male sex, we could see no harm in it... but when the Female Velocipedists came to England... we were, to say the least, somewhat disgusted and astonished... There is no doubt that a few more months will see the end of this mania, and, as Englishmen, we must thank heaven that our eyes are not polluted by the sight of our Mothers, Wives, or Sister imitating the actions of our foreign neighbors." In addition to bloomers, straddling a crossbar was also considered un-ladylike. Some feared that bicycle riding would lead to infertility, while others were appalled by the possibility of a bicycle's saddle coming into contact with a woman's genitalia and arousing her sexual passions. Nevertheless, many mildly erotic pictures of pretty girls perched on their bikes survive from this period, proof that not everybody was opposed to women riding bicycles.
Many conservatives in Britain and America worried that the bicycle would bring about a decline in morality. Young men and women often went cycling together during their courtships, and even though many of their chaperones took to the wheel as well, some people were concerned that the increased mobility that the bicycle made possible would tempt young lovers to travel farther and farther away from the watchful eyes of their parents and take liberties that had been hard to take in the days of the horse and buggy. And while champions of the bicycle praised it as a way to improve one's health, others believed that cycling could damage women's reproductive systems. Critics also argued that the bicycle was immoral because it encouraged women to leave their proper place, the home.
Columbia and Hartford Bicycles Catalog, 1902
Columbia and Hartford Bicycles Catalog, 1902.
Not surprisingly, women’s rights activists believed the bicycle was more than just a means of transport. To them, it was a liberator, and Susan B. Anthony later remarked that the bicycle had done more than anything else to emancipate women. Frances Willard of Evanston, Illinois, learned to ride at the age of fifty-three. She found the experience so liberating that she wrote a book about it, encouraging women of all ages to take to the wheel with her.
Yale Bicycles Catalog, 1898
Yale Bicycles Catalog, Kirk Manufacturing Co., 1898.
"From the day when, at sixteen years of age, I was enwrapped in the long skirts that impeded every footstep, I have detested walking and felt with a certain noble disdain that the conventions of life had cut me off from what in the freedom of my prairie home had been one of life’s sweetest joys. Driving is not real exercise... Horseback-riding, which does promise vigorous exercise, is expensive. The bicycle meets all the conditions and will ere long come within the reach of all. Therefore, in obedience to the laws of health, I learned to ride. I also wanted to help women to a wider world, for I hold that the more interests women and men can have in common, in thought, word, and deed, the happier will it be for the home." –Frances Willard, A Wheel within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride a Bicycle (1895)

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