How bicycles helped liberate women in the 1890s

Cyclingclaremont1896When the cycling fad hit New York in the 1870s and 1880s, it was danger-courting men who mostly took up the wheel—scorching down city streets and joining cycling clubs for group jaunts to the far reaches of New York and Brooklyn.

But with the invention of what was called the “safety bicycle,” which had wheels closer to the ground and pedals that powered the back wheel rather than the front, cycling became less a risky activity and more of an exhilarating way to get around.

CyclingforladiesbrentanosThat’s when women began cycling in large numbers.

The sense of freedom these “steel steers” offered is credited with paving the way for the women’s rights gains of the 20th century.

For starters, cycling helped change women’s fashion. It was impossible for the bright, sporty New Woman of the 1890s to ride while weighed down with petticoats and a corset like the women of her mother’s generation wore.

CyclingdividedskirtWomen began wearing looser-fitting cycling suits with slimmer “divided” skirts (below right), which gave way to less confining everyday fashion.

“From wheeling to walking is but a step, and a sensible dressing being now firmly established in the cycling world, it is beginning to creep into the walking costume, and we are told that the skirts of those gowns are to be shorter,” wrote the New York Times in 1895.

Less restrictive clothes served as a metaphor for the New Woman’s less restricted social life. Cycling became something she could do alone or in a group without a chaperone.

Physical activity also had an impact. Previous generations of women were not encouraged to exercise; they were supposed to project physical frailty.

Cyclingriversidedrive1896Biking required some level of exertion, however, and that changed the feminine ideal to one of action and strength.

The shift from an ideal of weakness to empowerment didn’t immediately give women the right to vote or instantly open up higher education to them.

But it appears to have helped move things in that direction.

Cyclingharpersbazaarcover“The bicycle has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance,” said Susan B. Anthony, who helped launch the equal rights movement in the mid–19th century well before the bicycle came along and women began riding through Central Park, Riverside Drive, and Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, three popular venues.

“I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

[Photos: Women riders in Upper Manhattan, MCNY]

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9 Responses to “How bicycles helped liberate women in the 1890s”

  1. mickey2travel Says:

    This is fantastic! Thank you for sharing!

  2. Heath Lee Says:

    I write about this very phenomenon in my biography Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause. Excellent article! Ephemeral New York is my absolute favorite blog always fascinating stories from a forgotten time. Heath Lee

  3. drcasecretary Says:

    For more on the role the bicycle played in liberating women, have a look at: Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) by Sue Macy

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you! Macy’s book looks fascinating, and for a first-hand account of an 1890s suffragist learning to ride the wheel, take a look at Frances Willard’s account here:

  5. How bicycles helped liberate women in the 1890s | Ephemeral New York | First Night History Says:

    […] Source: How bicycles helped liberate women in the 1890s | Ephemeral New York […]

  6. Gordon Harris Says:

    Some local history:

  7. Clive Durdle Says:

    Anyone studied the relationships pre car between women cycling and trains? Did women take their bikes with them on longer journeys?

  8. A weird, popular sport in 19th century New York | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] sport’s heyday stretched through the 1870s and 1880s, then died down as the bicycle became safer and other sports stole away fans. But not before a pedestrianism revival was […]

  9. Taking a “century ride” with the city’s wheelmen | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] rides were fine for the masses. But for hardcore wheelmen (and sometimes wheelwomen) looking for a real challenge, nothing beat the exhilaration of a new kind of competition: the […]

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