Pedaling the Path to Freedom: American Women on Bicycles

It’s May and we all know what that means! Spring flowers, cherry blossoms, beautiful sunny days and of course, bikes! Yep that’s right, May is National Bicycle Month. Remember your very first bike? Perhaps it was shiny and red with bright tassels that hung from the handlebars? Or maybe it was a low-rider with a white basket in front that held all of your important kid knickknacks? Well, whatever the type, it’s time to break out your grown-up bikes and start pedaling!

So what do bikes have to do with women?  It turns out  that they had a revolutionary impact on the women’s movement of the early 20th century. Here are some interesting facts:

Photo: Courtesy of The Library of Congress

Fact #1: The origins of the bicycle are shrouded in mystery—it’s very difficult to attribute just one person to its invention. But on June 26, 1819, W. K. Clarkson, Jr. of New York received a patent for a velocipede (a human-powered land vehicle with one or more wheels), and beginning in the 1860s Americans, both men and women, began to show an interest in the contraption.

Fact #2:  Bicycles took American consumers by storm in the 1890s! Automobiles had barely begun, and until then, people largely depended on horses for transportation.  Horses and especially carriages were expensive, and women often had to depend on men to hitch them up for use.  In cities, horses usually were maintained in stables, and the cost was such that they were only available to the affluent.   There were trains between most cities by the 1890s, and the beginnings of electric streetcars within cities, but that system was slow, inefficient, and certainly much less personal than a bike. Bicycles burst onto the scene with promises of practicality and affordability. They were inexpensive and provided individual transportation for men and women for business, sports or recreation!

Fact #3: The first wave of the women’s rights movement was well underway by the peak of the American bicycle craze in the 1890s. The bicycle, in many ways, came to embody the spirit of change and progress that the women’s rights movement sought to engender. The bicycle provided women with unprecedented mobility and forced a departure from the popular fashions of the day, including corsets, bustles, and long voluminous skirts!

Fact #4: Bicycles came to symbolize the quintessential “New Woman” of the late 19th century.  The “new woman” was the feminist ideal during the Progressive Era, a time of great social and cultural change for women.  The image of the new woman reflected many of the new opportunities for careers and education that were opening up for them. The “New Woman” was deemed to be young, college educated, active in sports, interested in pursuing a career, and looking for a marriage based on equality. She was also almost always depicted on a bike!

Fact #5: Suffragist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton foreshadowed the power of the bicycle in transforming the lives of women. Although Stanton was then 80 years old, she said in an 1895 article for the American Wheelman, “the bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect, self-reliance….”

Fact #6: Stanton’s friend and fellow suffragist leader, Susan B. Anthony, also remained young at heart, and she echoed Stanton’s sentiments. At 76, Anthony opined, “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.”

Fact #7: In 1895 Frances Willard, leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, published a book entitled A Wheel within a Wheel: How I learned to Ride the Bicycle, which chronicled her quest to learn to ride the bicycle late in her life, to aid her deteriorating health.   Although she died just three years later, Willard’s reflections on bicycle riding encouraged others.  She decried the cumbersome and restrictive fashions of the day and called for a more sensible and practical fashion for female bicyclists. Willard wrote: “A woman with [bustle] bands hanging on her hips, and dress snug about the waist and chokingly tight at the throat, with heavy trimmed skirts dragging down the back and numerous folds heating the lower part of the spine, and with tight shoes, ought to be in agony.  If women ride, they must…dress more rationally… If they do this, many prejudices will melt away. Reason will gain upon precedent and ere long the comfortable, sensible, and artistic wardrobe of the rider will make the conventional style of women’s dress absurd to the eye and un-durable to the understanding.”   Voluminous petticoats and bustles soon were a distant memory!

Other parts of the world are going through this same historic experience today.  A program by an international aid agency proved the point:  when offered a bicycle to complete the eighth grade, girls in rural India were much more likely to do so. The title of a recent book, Bicycle Citizens:  The Political World of Japanese Housewives, is also revealing.  Among other things, bicycles liberate women from sexual harassment too often encountered on public transportation.

So there you have it! Who would’ve thought that a bicycle could be a driving force in reshaping social attitudes toward women and be an enormous asset to them as they pedaled their path towards emancipation?

Sources:

“A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I learned to ride the bicycle” –Frances Willard

“Wheels of Change” – Sue Macy

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