Women’s place in our society has changed immensely in the past 150 years. The positions to which they can strive, the extent to which their voices are heard, their access to education, and their roles within the context of a household—all are much different than they were in 1865. Their merit (or lack thereof) notwithstanding, names like Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, and Lucretia Mott have been attributed with advancing women’s causes through the past century and a half. While we may look to these women as the impelling forces for the status women now claim, there are also some not-so-obvious catalysts for these developments. Chief among those at the turn of the century: the bicycle.
In an advance in engineering that I don’t fully understand, bicycles in the 1870s went from similarly-sized wheels to the penny-farthing, or high-wheeler. The rider sat atop a large wheel and given their position to the center of gravity, this mode of transportation was fairly dangerous, and unnecessarily so. Only men rode bicycles, due to female fashions of the day and concerns about “anatomy.” But change came a decade later, in the form of the safety bicycle. It served to not only keep male riders from serious injury, but also disrupt society as we know it.
The emergence of this model of bicycle, combined with cycling’s accessibility due to economic shifts and price drops, began to shake society. I recall a passage from my earlier reading of The Wright Brothers by David McCullough (Orville and Wilbur owned a bicycle shop): “Bicycles were proclaimed morally hazardous. Until now children and youth were unable to stray very far from home on foot. Now, one magazine warned, fifteen minutes could put them miles away. Because of bicycles, it was said, young people were not spending the time they should with books, and more seriously that suburban and country tours on bicycles were not infrequently accompanied by seductions.”
Remember, this was at the tail end of the Victorian period. Women had begun pushing for voting rights and demanding equality. The bicycle freed them to an extent that caused concern among men. The literal ability to go places was spawning the figurative ability to go places.
Many women were surely unaware of the revolution taking place as they pedaled about town. But feminist leaders of the day certainly recognized its power. Famed women’s suffragist Susan B. Anthony spoke of the hobby: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
Similar leaders eagerly learned the hobby in order to take part in the greater social demonstration. They encouraged others to do the same. Maria Ward, in her book, Bicycling for Ladies, pushed for her fellow females to hop on bikes: “No matter what happens, keep it [the bicycle] going, the faster the better, until a taste is acquired for the pastime; until the going forward forever idea seems to have taken possession of you.”
The bicycle’s shape also spurred change to women’s dress. Out were the impractical and even dangerous ankle-length dresses and corsets, and in were new forms: knickerbockers, bloomers, and divided skirts. A literal shedding of the Victorian symbols took place.
The culmination of all of this cycling (in addition to protests, speeches, and essays, and other forms of persuasion) came in 1920, when the 19th Amendment was ratified, which granted American women the right to vote.
The safety bike, developed to increase men’s safety, did more to threaten them than they could have ever imagined.