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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 9, March 2, 2024

Bicycle and Women’s Liberation | T. Vijayendra

Friday 1 March 2024, by T. Vijayendra


[published on March 8, 2024]

Bicycling and Feminism

One hundred years ago, Alice Hawkins, a suffragette, cycled around Leicester (UK) promoting the women’s rights movement, causing outrage by being one of the first ladies to wear pantaloons in the city. During the fight to win the vote the bicycle became not only a tool but also a symbol for the emancipation of women.

The American civil rights leader, Susan B Anthony, wrote in 1896:

"Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood."

Beatrice Grimshaw, who went on to a life of travel and adventure, describes a girlhood of Victorian propriety, in which she was:

"the Revolting Daughter–as they called them then. I bought a bicycle, with difficulty. I rode it unchaperoned, mile and miles beyond the limits possible to the soberly trotting horses. The world opened before me. And as soon as my twenty-first birthday dawned, I went away from home, to see what the world might to give to daughters who revolted."

Women gained a significant amount of independence with the invention of the bicycle. This device gave them the freedom to travel outside the home of their own power. Bicycle riding also necessitated more practical clothing for women and led to significant changes to female attire in society. One individual from the time period watching female cyclists remarked, "It is hard to believe, that they were the same women who went out in the afternoon for the formal carriage parade."

Women on Wheels: History

Although the bicycle was invented in 1817, it did not become popular because it had no pedals or chain. One had to drive it by kicking the ground. But around 1865, somebody in France dared to take both feet off the ground and onto cranks for pedalling the front wheel, proving that it was possible to balance on a bike and crank at the same time, and thus spawning a new boom. This was called the cranked two-wheeled velocipede. Now in this bicycle, designers increased bicycle speed by increasing the size of the front wheel to which the pedals were attached. The typical Ordinary, as these high-wheelers were known, had front wheels as large as five feet in diameter so the machine would cover more ground with each pedal revolution. It required extraordinary athleticism just to mount an Ordinary, let alone ride one, and accidents were common. Steering was difficult and even a small obstacle, a rut in the road or a large stone, could send the Ordinary rider, mounted many feet above the ground, head first over the front handlebars. Indeed, learning how to “take a header” safely was an essential skill.

In the late 1870s, the first so-called “Safety” bicycles appeared. Safety bicycles had wheels of equal size and a chain drive that transferred power from the pedals to the rear wheel. The Safety quickly proved the superior design, both faster and more stable than the Ordinary, and remains the basis for bicycle design today.

The Safety, not the Ordinary was, ironically, a bicycle ordinary people, including women, could ride. The Ordinary quickly became obsolete and the Safety bicycle helped usher in the cycling craze of the 1890s. “The safety bicycle fills a much-needed want for women in any station of life,” said The Bearings, a cycling periodical, in October, 1894, “It knows no class distinction, is within reach of all, and rich and poor alike have the opportunity of enjoying this popular and healthful exercise.”

The New Woman

As cycling’s popularity exploded, a new breed of woman was making her mark in the 1890s. “The New Woman” was the term used to describe the modern woman who broke with convention by working outside the home, or eschewed the traditional role of wife and mother, or became politically active in the woman’s suffrage movement or other social issues. The New Woman saw herself as the equal of men and the bicycle helped her assert herself as such.

The 1890s was the peak of the American bicycle craze and consumers were buying bicycles in large numbers. In 1897 alone, more than two million bicycles were sold in the United States, about one for every 30 inhabitants.

Cycling in the 1890s was nothing less than “a general intoxication, an eruption of exuberance like a seismic tremor that shook the economic and social foundations of society and rattled the windows of its moral outlook.” Nowhere was this more evident than in the role of the bicycle in the changing lives of American women. Indeed, the women’s movement of the 1890s and the cycling craze became inextricably intertwined.

In 1895, 800,000 bikes were built in Britain alone. A lot of those bikes were purchased by or for women. And like the invention of the postbox (women being able to send letters without the prying eyes of their father looking over the content first? Madness!), the bicycle proved to be another leap in women not having to request permission to do normal, boring stuff.

Suddenly, a whole world full of handsome gentlemen opened up for women across the UK. “The bicycle played a critical role in both the emancipation of women, and the subsequent expansion of the national gene pool. Young women could now travel to neighbouring villages and meet a wider circle of young men.”


It’s therefore no wonder, with all this sexual autonomy on offer, that there was reaction against women riding bicycles. In 1891, a journalist at the American paper Sunday Herald wrote the following: “I think the most vicious thing I ever saw in all my life is a woman on a bicycle–and Washington is full of them. I had thought that cigarette smoking was the worst thing a woman could do, but I have changed my mind.”

So why did people have such a problem with women cycling? Well, these ladies were cheeky enough to cycle outside, in public. Shock horror. And even if they didn’t see themselves as symbols of emancipation, their very public display of their freedoms was perceived as a challenge to the ingrained and patriarchal social order.

Traditional aspects of society pushed against these advances. The ‘New Woman’, who wore less restrictive clothing and rode a bicycle, became a satirical figure that was ridiculed in the media, particularly in the US. These women were seen to be abandoning their husbands, children, and a more traditional way of life. The relaxed clothes they wore were obviously indicative of their status as prostitutes. Obviously.

Bloomers and Bicycles

In 1893, the Woman’s Congress of the World’s Columbian Exposition revived interest in the bloomer (Bloomers are divided women’s garments for the lower body like pants) as an aid in improving women’s health through physical exercise. Their session on women’s dress opened with Lucy Stone reminiscing about the bloomer movement of the 1850s; her extolling the bloomer as the "cleanest, neatest, most comfortable and most sensible garment" she had ever worn; and young women modelling different versions of the dress. The following year Annie “Londonderry” Cohen Kopchovsky donned the bloomer during her famous bicycle trip around the world, and an updated version of the bloomer soon became the standard "bicycle dress" for women during the bicycle craze of the 1890s.

Fighting Back

But here’s the thing: no one could stop them. Women weren’t set to give up these new freedoms after finally ridding themselves of the dreaded chaperone.

Annie Londonderry was an American mother of three who decided to cycle around the world in fifteen months, setting off from Boston in 1894 carrying only a change of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver. Not only did she make full use of a woman’s new found freedom of movement, she also did a lot to change public perception by becoming a bit of a celebrity.

Since then, there’s been no stopping ladies from pedalling. In fact, the act of cycling is still rather revolutionary. Cycling attracts women of all different shapes, sizes, backgrounds, passions and interests. You can enjoy being on your bike in a myriad of ways.

Cycling encourages women to step outside the traditional gender roles that still exist in our ‘enlightened’ world: it’s not quite the move from skirts to bloomers, but women who cycle are challenging the idea of femininity by partaking in a form of exercise that’s male-dominated.

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