How the Bicycle Became a Symbol of Female Emancipation

Let’s face it, we don’t need an excuse to espouse the merits of cycling. As a bunch of self-confessed bicycle nuts and keen environmentalists, we are physically incapable of keeping quiet about it!

Whilst we often hammer home the benefits cycling can have for wider society, it’s easy to forget just how much the bicycle has already done for us. So, in honour of International Women’s Day, we’re going to be looking at how the humble bicycle advanced gender equality in the 19th and 20th centuries, and say thanks to the women who smashed through social conventions at the time, to just keep on pedalling.

A Masculine Accessory in the 19th Century

From the mid-1800s to the 1890s, the only way in which women could experience cycling was through ‘companionate riding’, with a two-seater tricycle or tandem. The purpose was to ensure women stayed safe from the ‘dangers’ of cycling by allowing the man to stay in control, further reinforcing male authority.

Single rider bicycles were viewed as a masculine accessory (mainly because they couldn’t be ridden side-saddle) and marketing from the time reflects this, with early bikes referred to as ‘bone shakers’. It wasn’t until the advent of the safety bicycle (what we’d recognise as a modern bicycle) in the 1890s that cycling became more accessible.

For the first time, women began cycling independently, breaking the expectation that they should only travel by foot, carriage or horse back to enable displays of grace and delicacy. Women had found a mode of transport that afforded them freedom and self-reliance.

Of course, not everyone was so thrilled about it. Conservative opinion questioned how modest it was for a woman to ride a bike, whilst others felt women’s ‘weaker’ frames would be damaged by the vibrations of riding. Physicians and others claiming to be medical experts, believed riding a bicycle would lead to deformities on the arms, hands and legs. Others argued women would be more prone to tuberculosis and gout. Perhaps most shocking was the suggestion that ‘bicycle face’ (the concentration needed to ride the bike) would ruin a woman’s beauty.

It was not just the physical impacts of cycling that made some question its suitability. It was feared that freedom away from a chaperone could lead to immorality, if women were able to go wherever and meet whomever they wanted. In much the same way that some worry about the impact of technology on society today, bicycles in the 19th century were the modern day social media.

“The bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect and self-reliance.”

- Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Practical Clothing

Around this time, more practical clothing came to the forefront. Cycling emphasised the impracticalities of women’s dress more than any other activity. Newspapers regularly reported stories of women dying due to riding bicycles in voluminous skirts. A letter published in the Daily Express in 1896 suggested a female cyclist died after her dress obscured her view, whilst other newspapers report dresses getting wrapped around the pedals or chain.

Patents for bloomers began to pop-up, whilst demand for convertible cyclewear went through the roof. Alice Bygrace, a dressmaker from Brixton created a cycling skirt with a pulley system, which would adjust the height of the skirt, to prevent it getting caught in the bicycle. It was a huge hit in both the UK and Australia.

Bicycles and the Suffragettes

For the suffragettes, the bicycle was a practical means of campaigning. Whilst wearing their ‘Votes for Women’ sashes, riders could cover a greater distance than on foot. In 1911, Alice Hawkins pedalled her way around Leicester to promote the women’s rights movement, raising eyebrows by being one of the first women to wear pantaloons in the city.

Many suffrage campaigners were cyclists, including Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst. Bicycles enabled leaflet drops and covert missions, with women able to meet freely to not only socialise, but organise their next steps as an organisation.

Maybe next time we look at our bikes we’ll see them as much more than just a practical mode of transport! The bicycle cemented itself as a symbol of female emancipation, and became the catalyst for the creation of less restrictive clothing. Early female cyclists were courageous, going against the grain to endure the judgements of others and set the precedent that cycling should be open for all.

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