How the Bicycle Helped Usher within the Girls’s Rights Motion (Circa 1890)


The early historical past of the bicycle did not promise nice issues—or something, actually—for girls on the daybreak of the nineteenth century. A two-wheeled bicycle-like invention, for instance, inbuilt 1820, “was extra like an agricultural implement in development than a bicycle,” one bicycle history notes. Fabricated from wooden, the “passion horses” and velocipedes of biking’s first a long time rolled on iron wheels. Their near-total lack of suspension led to the epithet “boneshaker.” Some had steering mechanisms, some didn’t. Braking was typically completed with the toes, or a crowd of pedestrians, a tree, or horse-drawn cart.

Laddish golf equipment fashioned and raced round London, Paris, and New York. No ladies allowed. The earliest bicycles for girls had been ridden side-saddle…. However regardless of all this, it’s completely truthful to say that few applied sciences in historical past, historic or trendy, have accomplished extra to free ladies from home toilage and produce them careening into the general public sq., to the dismay of the Victorian institution.

Bicycles “gave ladies a brand new degree of transportation independence that perplexed newspaper columnists” and most of the people, writes Adrienne LaFrance at The Atlantic, quoting a San Francisco journalist in 1895:

It actually doesn’t matter a lot the place this one particular person younger girl is happening her wheel. It could be that she’s going to the park on pleasure bent, or to the shop for a dozen hairpins, or to name on a sick pal on the different aspect of city, or to get a doily sample of anyone, or a recipe for eradicating tan and freckles. Let that be as it might. What the public needs to know is, The place are all the ladies on wheels going? Is there a grand rendezvous someplace towards which they’re all headed and the place they may a while maintain a meet that may trigger this wobbly previous world to get up and readjust itself?

Girls cyclists had been seen because the superior guard of a coming battle. “Squarely within the middle of this battle was one instrument,” notes the Vox video above, “that fully modified the sport.” Each Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are credited with declaring that ‘girl is driving to suffrage on the bicycle,’ a line that was printed and reprinted in newspapers on the flip of the century,” LaFrance writes. By the Nineties, everybody rode bicycles, the primary Tour de France was only some years away, and biking expertise had come to this point that it might assist create each the automobile—with its progressive pneumatic tires and spoked wheels—and the airplane, via the experiments of Ohio bicycle-makers the Wright Brothers.

The brand new bikes, initially referred to as “security bikes” to distinction them with giant-wheeled penny-farthings that had been briefly the norm, might not have developed gearing techniques but, however they had been far lighter, cheaper, and simpler to trip (comparatively) than the bicycles that had come earlier than, which started as playthings for rich younger men-about-town. The Nationwide Girls’s Historical past Museum describes the scene:

On the flip of the century, trains, vehicles, and streetcars had been rising in use in city areas, however individuals nonetheless largely trusted horses for transportation. Horses, and particularly carriages, had been costly and ladies typically needed to rely upon males to hitch up the horses for journey…. Surrounded by inefficient and costly types of journey, bicycles arrived in cities with the promise of practicality and affordability. Bicycles had been comparatively cheap and supplied women and men with particular person transportation for enterprise, sports activities, or recreation.

Not solely did bicycles give ladies equal entry to non-public fast transit, however they did so for girls of many various social lessons. The leveling results had been important, as had been the modifications to ladies’s style. Uncovered calves (although nonetheless encased in numerous biking boots) ready the best way for trousers. Traditionalists had been outraged, ceaselessly mocked ladies on bikes, as they mocked the suffragists, and pushed for restrictions on full freedom of motion. “While the Nineties noticed discourses of middle-class femininity turn into reconciled with the notion of ladies on bicycles,” The Victorian Cyclist factors out, “studying to trip a bicycle required middle-class ladies to fastidiously navigate their manner via a set of extremely conservative and inflexible gender norms.”

Regardless of media efforts to tamp down or tame the revolutionary potential of the bicycle for girls, the market that made the machines noticed no downside with rising gross sales. Bicycle poster artwork and promoting from the flip of the twentieth century is dominated by women cyclists, who’re portrayed as odd ramblers about city, hip adventurers, ultra-modern “New Girls,” and, maybe much less progressively, nude goddesses. Whether or not we name it Gilded Age, Belle Epoque, or Fin de siècle, the top of the nineteenth century produced a transportation revolution that was additionally, via no significantly acutely aware design of the makers of the bicycle, a revolution in ladies’s rights and thus human freedom writ giant.

Associated Content material: 

The Library of Congress Digitizes Over 16,000 Pages of Letters & Speeches from the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and You Can Help Transcribe Them

Odd Vintage Postcards Document the Propaganda Against Women’s Rights 100 Years Ago

How Bicycles Can Revolutionize Our Lives: Case Studies from the United States, Netherlands, China & Britain

The First 100 Years of the Bicycle: A 1915 Documentary Shows How the Bike Went from Its Clunky Birth in 1818, to Its Enduring Design in 1890

Josh Jones is a author and musician primarily based in Durham, NC. Observe him at @jdmagness


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