Wheels of Change: The Bicycle and Women’s Rights

In 1896, Susan B. Anthony affirmed that the bicycle “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” The year before, in her book A Wheel Within A Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle, temperance reformer and suffragist Frances Willard asserted, “I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world.”

May is National Bike Month. The time to celebrate the “many benefits of bicycling,” says its sponsor, the League of American Bicyclists. But one of the oft-unknown benefits of the bike is the unintentional influence it had on women’s rights. By sparking controversy, the bike inadvertently helped emancipate women toward the end of the 19th century.

When the League of American Bicyclists began in 1880, bicycles—the velocipede and the high-wheel to be specific—were limited to the male upper class. Within six years, however, when the Victor Safety bicycle (the earliest version of the bikes we see today) hit the U.S. by storm, the sport opened up to include the middle class and women. And by the start of the 20th century, the wheel was synonymous with the “New Woman.” How and why the seemingly sudden change? Largely because the Victor hit the American market at a pivotal moment in history, igniting a mixture of discussions on political and social issues that had been escalating for decades.

In the 1830s, temperance groups could be found all over the country. and their main supporters were women. Besides the fact that alcohol abuse was a root cause of domestic violence, the Cult of Domesticity (or True Womanhood) insisted women uphold piety (along with purity, domesticity and, the kicker, submissiveness) and the moral character of their homes and community. Similarly, as the debate over slavery intensified, women once again ventured out of their homes to support the cause. They attended meetings, wrote articles, spoke publicly. But as women shifted into the public sphere, they found they had little rights and little power to induce any real change. It was during this time that temperance reformers and abolitionists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony began to organize the first seedlings of the women’s movement.

As promising as the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention was, it wasn’t until after the Civil War and the passing of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments that women’s rights regained momentum. Social reform and self-improvement were a huge part of the American psyche in antebellum America. Along with women’s rights, dress reform started making headway, particularly between 1870 and 1880. The movement, partly an attempt to challenge long-held beliefs about women and their place in society, called for more subdued, hygienic designs, meaning looser tops and bifurcated garments, or “bloomers” as many knew them (thanks to temperance activist and journalist Amelia Bloomer, who around 1851 debuted the new “costume” in her temperance newspaper, The Lily). The media had a field day. A woman upheld the notion of True Womanhood by wearing heavy skirts and tight and immobilizing corsets.

Women who did wear bifurcated garments were typically working women of the lower class. Gayle Fischer, who wrote a book on the subject titled Pantaloons and Power, explains “For women to take control of their appearance, to distance themselves from a primarily ornamental identity, primarily dependent on men and devoted to pleasing men, was intrinsically transgressive.” It wouldn’t be until the 1890s bicycle craze that bifurcated women’s apparel became popular. And, as Fischer notes, “just as it had 40 years earlier, the popular press reported on society’s shocked reactions to seeing women on bicycles in ‘bifurcated’ or ‘rational’ garments, and printed humorous cartoons, songs, and poems satirizing the female cyclist.”

By 1893, the Victor Safety Bicycle was an American obsession. Whole roads were built to sustain the traffic. Clubs were set up across the country. As more women took up the new pastime, and the new dress, their husbands and fathers (and priests and doctors, for that matter) took notice. And retaliated. The Los Angeles Herald addressed bikes and the “great emancipator of women, bloomers” in its 1895 article, “What Shall the New Woman Wear, Skirts or Bloomers?” According to the article, what some “see in women’s stepping into bifurcated outer nether garments [is women] stepping into everything else hitherto reserved for men, who see not a new woman with bloomers, but a new edition of man.” And therein lurked the real concern.

Some husbands threatened divorce. Doctors were quoted in popular women’s journals such as Petersons Magazine and Godeys Lady’s Book, claiming the bicycle had detrimental effects on women’s reproductive organs and menstrual cycles. Of particular concern was the wanton ways riding was believed to promote masturbation. In the same Herald piece, the writer quotes a sermon from Rev. T.B Hawthorne, D.D. of Atlanta, Ga.: “If there is any object on earth which makes jubilee in the realm of unclean spirits, it is a ‘society woman’ in masculine habiliments, straddling a bicycle and prepared to make an exhibition of her immodesty on the thoroughfares of a great city.” As Rev. Hawthorne saw it, “women were riding to the devil in bloomers.”

Companies such as Spalding, America’s leading bicycle manufacturer in the mid-1890s, quickly responded with the Christy Anatomical saddle, a seat strategically hollowed out to prevent female genitalia from experiencing any friction. And advertisements always promoted the proper way for women to ride—upright and never too fast. Riding bent over the handlebars and pedaling fast in the “scorching” position was strictly prohibited.

The insults, much to the disappointment of critics, I’m sure, simply fueled the fire. And inspired women like Kate Chopin, Willa Cather and other feminist writers to incorporate the bike and what it gave women—mobility, independence and the hope of endless possibilities—into their stories. It also sparked responses from feminists such as Sarah Grand, who in 1894 wrote a brazen article for the North American Review. Addressing the cartoons and outlandish exaggerations seen in Punch, Puck and Life, Grand rebuts the way men “[snarl] about the end of true womanliness, cants on the subject of the Sphere, and threatens that if we do not sit still at home with cotton-wool in our ears … we shall be afflicted with short hair, coarse skins, unsymmetrical figures, loud voices, tastelessness in dress and an unattractive appearance and character.” The article shrewdly and ever so cleverly builds to her assertion that “while on the one hand man has shrunk to his true proportions in our estimation, we, on the other, have been expanding to our own; and now we come confidently forward.”

Confidently forward indeed. The bike granted women freedom of movement. And not just literally. It became a symbol, an emblem for emancipation and selfhood. And there would be no undoing. The bicycling craze eventually died down after the turn of the century, and soon automobiles were the next great craze. But the awakening the wheel spurred in women inspired the strength and perseverance of the New Woman and continued to influence women for generations to come.

Photos of women bicycling (and in bicycle ads) in the late 19th century from Wikimedia Commons



Sarah Nipper is a Los Angeles-based writer currently working at Malibu Magazine.