“Let me tell you what I think of Bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.”
- Susan B. Anthony, February 2, 1896
I read that quote for the first time recently. I instantly attached myself to it. After all, as a woman who loves the freeing feeling of being on a bike, I knew exactly what Susan B. Anthony was talking about.
Or did I?
The bicycle was brought to America in 1876 by Colonel Albert Augustus Pope. At that time, bikes had huge wheels in the front and teeny tiny wheels in the back. The bigger the front wheel, the faster the bike. In fact, they went so fast, that most horses couldn’t keep up with them. And since you didn’t have to feed a bike, the “high wheelers” became a much more economical form of transportation than horses. The bicycle was an instant success.
The high wheelers, though, were highly dangerous. They were difficult to mount and the front wheels were so big that hitting any sort of rut in the poorly maintained, horse destroyed roads would send the rider crashing down to Earth. It was during this time that the League of American Wheelmen (L.A.W.) fought for road improvements. Road improvements that would pave the way for the invention of the automobile.
Rather quickly, a new iteration of the bike dawned – the type that we all know and love to this day – with 2 wheels of the same size and a chain that drives the rear wheel. This bike became known as the “safety” because…well, it was safer. Popularity of the safety soared. Hundreds of manufacturers popped up almost overnight as bikes were selling by the hundreds of thousands by 1896. And at $50 - $150 each, it was driving millions of dollars into the American economy.
But enough about the general awesomeness of the bicycle, how did this silly little thing emancipate women?
Think back to what you know about life for women in the late 1800’s. Firstly, women only wore dresses. Huge Victorian dresses. Huge Victorian dresses that oftentimes couldn’t fit through doorways! Women were strapped tightly into corsets - a garment that was not only painful to wear, but was extremely detrimental to internal organs and made it hard for women to breathe. Secondly, women stayed in the home and didn’t wander very far. Lastly, they were discouraged from exercise – it was thought to be bad for them; bad for their reproductive organs.
Enter the bicycle.
The popularity of the bicycle could not be denied. The craze exploded like a cargo ship of Mentos sinking into a sea of Diet Coke. And women got into it. They really got into it. However, it didn’t take long to realize that trying to pilot a bicycle dressed in “proper” women’s clothing was nearly impossible.
Almost immediately, women started tossing their dresses aside in favor of more appropriate cycling clothing. Corsets were the first to go – if she couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t ride. And that was a huge deal back then. The use of a corset defined the curves of a women’s body and gave a visual definition of gender roles during that time. Refusing to wear them caused a great uproar especially among men and church groups who feared the blurring of those roles would lead to the infringement of man’s domain.
The concern of gender roles would only increase as women’s riding fashion continued to change. Once free of the corset, the dresses got smaller. Woman finally got tired of trying to ride in a long dress altogether and began opting for a garment called “Bloomers”. Emily Bloomer had developed the shorter skirt with flowing trousers underneath in the 1850’s. But, they caused such an outrage (the thought of a woman wearing any sort of pants was completely unimaginable …only men wore pants; it defined him), that they didn’t really catch on…until the bike came along.
Bloomers became the most useful bike riding garment, but were still not an acceptable form of women’s fashion off the bike. Off the bike, women were still expected to be in their dresses which caused problems of its own. One New York [state] school board banned female school teachers from riding a bike to work to prevent them from showing up in bloomers. “If we do not stop them now they will want to be in style with the New York [City] women and wear bloomers. Then how would our schoolrooms look with the lady teachers parading about among young boys and girls wearing bloomers…We are determined to stop our teachers in time, before they go that far,” said one trustee to the New York Times .
Funny thing is, for all the controversy they caused, the bloomers popularity was short-lived. Although functional, the lady cyclists actually found them ugly and started rejecting them in favor of shorter skirts. Now women were showing their legs. Pictures of women wearing pants (GASP!) even started showing up in advertising and on cigar boxes; the first gender-benders of the New World! American Society was aghast at the impropriety that the bicycle had begun; aghast that women were demanding proper riding clothing…aghast that women were demanding anything at all.
It was the mid 1890’s and women were spiraling out of control at the hands of the bike. In a few short years, the entire image of a woman had changed. But, the emancipation went beyond just clothing. Women were experiencing a freedom they had never known before.
And not all feminists were happy about it. Up next, the anti-cyclist women's movement.