When 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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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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