How the Bicycle Helped Bring about Women’s Equality
“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.”
Suffragette Susan B. Anthony, 1896
The bicycle went through a radical change in design from the high wheeler (aka the Ordinary or Penny Farthing bicycle) to the new Safety bicycle . The next great bike design was the invention of the drop-frame in 1886, which meant the center bar swooped down low to make room for skirts or dresses. This new bike design soon became the standard “women’s bike” and the popularity of cycling among women took off!
The bicycle brought about some big changes to women’s lives in the late 19th century, bringing them a measure of freedom, a sense of equality and a self-confidence they’d never had before. The bicycle became connected to the women’s suffrage movement both by feminists and also by the men who felt threatened by the changes it brought about. As Maria Ward once wrote in her book, Bicycling for Ladies, ”Riding the wheel, our powers are revealed to us…”.
The bicycle gave women true freedom of physical mobility without depending on male family members for transportation that it truly expanded their world. Bicycling gave women the freedom, to go off on her own, as far as she could pedal, unaccompanied by a chaperone.
Bicycling was difficult with the restrictions of Victorian era clothing including corsets, hoops, heavy thick undergarments and long, floor-length skirts. The fashions quickly changed as women sought for clothing that allowed them freedom of movement and the ability to ride a bicycle. Bloomers were worn by the fashionably brave and other women soon adopted what became known as “rational dress” which included shorter skirts and a limit of no more than 7 lbs of undergarments (this in a century when women often wore up to 14 pounds of undergarments.)
“Just to give you an idea of the benefits of a divided skirt, it is almost impossible for a lady to ride any distance…with the ordinary skirt. You get too much of the dress on the one side of the wheel, and you do not get enough of the dress on the other side.” -Dora Rinehart
“The wearers of the bloomers are usually young women who have minds of their own and tongues that know how to talk.”
-Editorial from the Chicago Sunday Times-Herald
Women began to compete in cycling races and endurance events and several soon gained fame for winning races or pulling off amazing feats of endurance. As the exploits of women such as Louise Armaindo (“champion lady bicyclist of the world”), endurance racer Frankie Nelson, the famous Annie Londonderry who took on the challenge of riding a bike around the world and “America’s Greatest Cyclienne,” Dora Rinehart, who rode over a hundred century rides.
The bicycle helped change the self-perception of women in the 1890’s as never before. Women began to see themselves as the equal to men and deserving of equal rights as well. The term “New Woman” was coined to describe women who broke with convention by working outside the home, or changed from the traditional role of wife and mother, or became politically active in the woman’s suffrage movement or other social issues.
Want to read more about this? Check out the book Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom with a Few Flat Tires Along the Way by Sue Macy