Today in Feminist History: Sutton Scolds Cyclists (June 14, 1895)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.


June 14, 1895: Difficult and inadvisable as it might be to simultaneously offend women, bicyclists, and teachers, William Sutton of College Point, Long Island, managed to pull off such a triple play earlier this evening.

His verbal and legal offensive was directed at three female teachers who have taken up what has become a wildly popular sport among women as well as men, that of bicycling. Two of the teachers pedal the four-mile trip from Flushing each day, and the other lives in College Point.

Since it is not illegal for women to ride, there was nothing Sutton could do as a newly-elected Justice of the Peace to discourage what he considers an improper practice for women. But as a member of the Board of School Trustees, he could introduce a resolution prohibiting women teachers from riding to and from school. He explained his “reasoning” this way:

“We, as Trustees, are responsible to the public for the conduct of the school, and are in great measure, guardians of the morals of the pupils. In the first place, I do not consider it to be the proper thing for any young lady to ride a bicycle, and in the person of a school teacher, it is particularly out of place. As far as the question of riding before or after school hours and when away from the school is concerned, we have no authority, but we will not permit them to ride bicycles to or from the schoolroom.”

Sutton was eagerly supported by fellow Board member Dr. A.F.W. Reimer. Among wheelwomen elsewhere, some traditional items of clothing such as long, multi-layered skirts worn over petticoats have been rejected as unsuitable for riding, and in many large cities, even relatively short skirts have yielded to more practical bloomers. So, Dr. Reimer wanted to make sure that such an evolutionary course would not proceed to what he believes is its inevitable conclusion in his village:

“It is not the proper thing for ladies to ride the bicycle. They wear skirts, of course, but if we do not stop them now they will want to be in style with the New York women and wear bloomers. Then how would our schoolrooms look with the lady teachers parading around amongst the boys and girls wearing bloomers ? They might just as well wear men’s trousers. I suppose it will come to that, but we are determined to stop our teachers in time, before they go that far.”

As might be expected, those whose morality and liberating mode of transportation were called into question were not pleased when the Board passed the resolution. One teacher said:

“I think it is a shame that such an action should be taken by the Trustees. I do not consider that riding a bicycle has a tendency to create immorality. I consider the resolution an outrage and an insult.”

Mary Lyle, Superintendent of the school, said she didn’t think any harm was caused by the women teachers bicycling, and praised their moral character. But she said that she would reluctantly enforce the ban.

Though this evening’s vote was a setback for women, bicyclists and teachers, the growing popularity of bicycles as well as increasing support for women’s equality insures that at some point in the future the edict will be reversed.

One day bicycles will be as numerous and accepted on our streets as horses, and once equal suffrage is achieved, women wearing bloomers—or anything else they find practical—will surely hold as many elective offices as men wearing trousers.


If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.

About

David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.