How women rode the bicycle on the way to suffrage.

A few years back I was Internet hopping in search of a unique idea for my next historical novel. I came across a quote that floored me. Perhaps you will find it interesting as well:

“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, prominent advocate for women’s suffrage, women’s rights, and social reform, 1896.

The “safety bicycle,” the ancestor to most of our bikes today, hit the streets in the late-1880s, prompting the birth of an American craze. It replaced the penny-farthing, also called the high wheeler because of the oversized front wheel. Within a decade, millions of chain-driven safety bicycles, with their fatter, same-size tires, were sold each year.

It came to be known as “the wheel.”

Men dominated the bikeways at first. After all, it was thought to be unseemly for women to ride, against traditional gender norms. The freedom that reformers like Ms. Anthony applauded would result in liaisons contributing to promiscuity, it was predicted, as men and women could interact more freely.

Medical experts predicted too much bicycling would lead to unsightly changes to the musculature of the female body. It might lead to uterine disorders and damage the reproductive organs. And the excitement of cycling might negatively affect a woman’s mental and emotional well-being.

Still, women rode, withstanding indictments from media outlets and institutions across the land like the following:

“It is not the proper thing for ladies to ride the bicycle,” Dr. A.F.W. Reimer, a member of the Board of School Trustees in the village of College Point, N.Y., told the New York Times. Three female instructors had made a practice of riding their wheels to work. “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 about among the boys and girls wearing bloomers…We are determined to stop our teachers in time, before they go that far.”

And the trustees did halt this scandalous activity. But for not for long.

The Great Chattanooga Bicycle Race from Paul Cranefield on Vimeo.

In short order, female wheelers indeed ushered in a revolution in women’s clothing to facilitate riding. More of them traded their lengthy, heavy skirts and corsets for more practical, less restrictive outfits. Like…bloomers, yes, and divided skirts. Outfits considered “unladylike” as they exposed more of the leg, but by today’s standards, still quite modest.

The women’s movement has made significant strides over the last hundred years, but there’s a ways to go in the battle for equal rights:

  • Women continue to face a wage gap in many industries and professions.
  • They are underrepresented in top leadership positions in politics, business, and academia.
  • Issues such as workplace bullying and discrimination are still roadblocks in efforts to achieve sex-based equality.
  • Gender-based violence and intimidation affecting women’s safety and well-being are still important problems.

These specific and other challenges need solutions. So, ladies, as another prominent women’s suffragist, educator, and social reformer commented in the late 1890s…

“When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.” – Frances E. Willard

And take a guy along for the ride. Happy wheeling!