#Throwback Thursday: American Women on Bikes

By: Sydnee C. Winston, Project Coordinator

Photo Courtesy Library of Congress

It’s #Throwback Thursday at NWHM and today we’re paying homage to the bicycle. May is National Bicycle Month and we thought it would be fun to highlight some the ways that this zippy invention has historically impacted the lives of American women. 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:

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!

Photo Courtesy Library of Congress

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!

Check out these ladies riding their bicycles in 1899:

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!

"New Woman" Photo Courtesy of The Library of Congress

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.”

Photo Courtesy Library of Congress

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!

Frances Willard learns to Ride her Bike

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?

Remember to stay tuned for next week’s #Throwback Thursday.

3 Responses to “#Throwback Thursday: American Women on Bikes”

  1. Sarah says:

    Great article – really learned a lot and like your site :)

  2. NWHM says:

    Sarah, thanks for your comment and for reading our post! We’re so glad that you liked the article and learned something new. Thanks for your support and please continue to read our blog!

  3. Loved this post. I love these old photos. Women with spirit and sass. Movement, empowerment, and motion…

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