Friday, March 4, 2011

Women in Cycling: Liberate Me, Baby!

“Many a girl has come to her ruin through a spin on a country road.” – Charlotte Smith, 1896.

Charlotte Smith was a feminist with concerns. Her concern was of the new found freedom that women felt by being on a bicycle. Freed of the heavy, uncomfortable dresses and able to feel the wind on her skin, women could ride as far as their legs would take them. This was a freedom they had never experienced before; a freedom depicted repeatedly in the advertising posters of the day.

Smith feared that this freedom was leading women to ride off on escapades of sin. What a Debbie Downer, eh? The freedom afforded by their bikes allowed them to “mingle” easier with the opposite sex sending them coasting straight down the dirt path of immorality. “The bicycle is the devil’s advance agent morally and physically in thousands of instances,” she once wrote.

You may be thinking, "Oh, c'mon. How can a feminist speak so horribly about a device so liberating?"

Well, Smith’s view on the bicycle is actually the perfect parallel for the complicated feelings within the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States. The movement for Suffrage (women’s right to vote and run for office) began in 1848 and by the 1890’s was a very divisive social topic. Many people did not feel it was a woman’s place to interfere in the affairs of the State, including many women. Some women were fine with their current roles. Some wanted to vote, but still felt their place was in the home. Some felt they deserved the exact same rights as men, which was a very extreme view to have. Let’s not forget, women had only just started putting pants on for the first time (thanks to the bicycle)!

Despite Charlotte Smith’s feeling that bicycles were “indecent and vulgar,” she was a central figure in the feminist movement. She fought for women’s rights in the workplace, edited two women’s magazines, lobbied and pushed for women to get into business, and was known to knock a guy over the head with her umbrella if she caught him mistreating a lady. So, I can only fault her so much.

To be fair, Smith’s remarks probably held some truth to them. In the late 1800’s, the lives of young women were looked after very closely and their interaction with the opposite sex was strictly guarded. They were not afforded much independence at all and they rarely left the home by themselves.

Oh, thank God for the bicycle, right?

Thanks to the bicycle, women were finding a way to explore the world for themselves and, for that matter, explore themselves. Courtships changed as women started experimenting with relationships outside of their strict households. This was the very beginning of women taking charge of their own sexuality!

Oh, thank God for the bicycle, right?

The religious community was in a haze of confusion on what to do. Some churches sided with Charlotte Smith’s view that the bicycle was a downward spiral of sin and loudly denounced the use of the vehicle by women. Others were concerned that their congregations were shrinking as more and more people chose riding their bikes on Sundays instead of worshiping. In fact, several pastors took their services out of the church and onto the bicycle, meeting the cyclists on their own turf. It was the perfect compromise!

Oh, thank God for the bicycle…(seriously, God, I’d personally like to thank you for the bicycle. Amen.)

So, the general concern in the anti-women-on-bicycle movement was that, given her newfound independence, women’s role in society would change completely and permanently. And you know what? They were right.

Oh, thank God for the bicycle!

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