Presentation for Arts & Letters Symposium November 19, 2010 1.

The New Woman On Wheels: American Women and Bicycles in the Late Nineteenth Century 2. I like to start out with a quote to set the scene: “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.” - Susan B. Anthony in the New York World, February 2, 1896 The bicycle is familiar today as a children’s toy, fashion accessory, and athletic device. In the late nineteenth century, though, the bicycle was so popular that historians have taken to calling the period “the bicycle boom.” 3. The bicycle marked the intersection of several of the cultural movements of the late Victorian era: affordable because of the Industrial Revolution’s phenomenon of mass-production, the bicycle symbolized humanity’s progress by providing a means for speedier travel through technological innovation, but was primarily a tool for personal leisure, which for the first time during this era was available to the evergrowing middle class. 4. When the earliest ancestor of the bicycle, the German “walking machine,” was invented in 1817, there was no thought that this interesting new diversion would, less than a century later, transform into a symbol, and controversial rallying point, of the women’s suffrage movement. The walking device was often derogatorily referred to as a “dandy-horse” in reference to the preening style-obsessed aristocratic men who rode it. It had no pedals, but was rather straddled and pushed forward by the feet. Though hardly a reliable mode of transportation (because it was made completely of wood and therefore difficult to steer and uncomfortable to ride), the walking machine gained some mild and short-lived popularity among a limited number of young men in the upper class throughout Western Europe. The bicycle, although it evolved from machine originally designed for aristocratic diversion, became a tool for recreation in all social classes and even a metaphor for the spirit of the age, especially with regards to the emerging women’s movement. 5. Though earlier versions of the bicycle appeared in the United States in the 1810s and ‘60s, the machine did not become popular until the arrival of the safety bicycle from England in 1885. This design, especially when coupled with the pneumatic tire that was introduced in 1890 which allowed a smoother and more comfortable ride, made for a device that individuals of both sexes and all ages could use for leisure activity. The factories in which they were produced were among the earliest to

though. designers made many attempts to create a vehicle for women that would allow them to accompany a man on a bicycle without compromising the prevailing decorum with regards not only to the full skirts in style but to the perceived delicacies of women’s nerves and physique.incorporate assembly-style production. and desire to take up cycling in a serious way. as well as the invention of new processes.” emphasizing that bicycle riding was only ordinary for men and must be modified to be appropriate for women. his grandiose sentiment was echoed by American society as it was growing towards becoming the most productive and richest society on the planet. Once the bicycle captured America’s attention.that of altering the bicycle to suit societal norms rather than promoting social change for the permission of women’s full participation. even though the bicycle was the new . The growing middle class was the most enthusiastic about adopting the trend. and affords in itself an admirable epitome of the method by which it appears inevitable that mankind must slowly eliminate the old. the bicycle is really a marvel of strength and lightness. the caption describes a tandem bike. the second seat of which could be used by a man or a woman. which offered more stability and thus safety than the bicycle. and more difficult to steer. While these designs never became popular. as seen here. the efficiency of which led to increased affordability. it quickly became almost ubiquitous. money. Beyond that. for. these machines were also slower than bikes. This was not limited to young women who. Progressive women of the age. Mackintosh described. coming by slow graduations to comprehend their own powers. of ingenuity and invention. the bicycle had its most distinct effect on women. as historian David Rubinstein puts it. so women could ride along with men rather than be allowed the freedom inherent in a personal vehicle. “traded the domestic ideology of their mothers for an activistic public agenda.” 6. it came to represent everything exciting about the second half of the century. Within the middle class. they illustrate the approach that the male designers of the machines took to including women in the pastime . The most successful answer was the tricycle. as historian P. were not content with accepting this outlook. Note that riding astride is considered “ordinary.” Though Howland wrote before the biggest boom of popularity. 8. as it does. However. In this example from Scientific American. and practically realize the means for their exercise. 7. as captured in Harper’s Bazaar in 1881: “Taking advantage. In many cases tricycles were made to carry two people. with which the last half-century has been so crowded. During the early years of the craze. “It was the middle class who had the time. making the race pictured here an unrealistic portrayal of the machines. of the discovery of new materials.G. and began adopting the pastime of cycling but eschewing the adjustments that set their sector of the sport apart from the men’s.

Once the bloomer costume had been revived as athletic apparel. “Indeed. This cartoon shows a photograph of a woman with a bicycle addressing her husband and daughter in their drawing room with “Sew on your own buttons. In light of this movement towards more traditionally masculine attire. So. 9. since bloomers had originally been introduced by women’s rights activists in the 1850s. it did become more acceptable even outside the activity of bicycling. the more outcry was heard from society.” that is. The image of a woman dressed in a bicycling costume almost indistinguishable from men’s clothing cropped up frequently in cartoons of the era. and while it was not completely embraced. Concerns about the propriety of female riders often took the form of medical arguments. I’m going for a ride. which could not be achieved on the models designed for them. but riders were insistent: As Sidney Aronson notes in his “Sociology of the Bicycle. The act of going out alone.” 12. many women began changing the way they dressed.” “The effect of the bicycle on women’s clothing was truly revolutionary — within a period of two or three years the bicycle gave the American woman the liberty of dress which reformers had been seeking for generations. As Jean Matthews says in The Rise of the New Woman. and sometimes left off altogether.woman’s especial icon of cultural revolution. the more women asserted independence. The primary immediate rationale for different designs for women cyclists was the issue of the long. it was not as threatening. was an act of assertion of independence and agency that was not well tolerated. they also were dangerous: if skirts became entangled in the gears or pedals of the bike a woman could be thrown off at the risk of breaking an arm or other injury. it was only for those activities. full dresses that were customary during the Victorian period.” that is. While the Victorian era saw women increasingly allowed to venture out without chaperones. which directly pertained to their “sphere” of influence of the home (as opposed to the male sphere of the professional. which depicted abandonment of domestic responsibilities in favor of bicycling as a common plague threatening the sanctity of the American home. as historian Sally Sims notes “A more troubling . specifically regarding the effects the jostling of cycling could have on a woman’s ability to bear children. lower-class women. the public encomiums to ‘Home’ and a woman’s role within it grew louder as more women showed an inclination to escape its hold. These were not only inconvenient and cumbersome to ride in. The costume was greeted as scandalous at first. and social world outside of the home). Skirts were worn short over full trousers called bloomers. 11. to a lesser degree. female bicycle riders began to meet stronger reactions from conservative social forces. They all wanted to be able to experience the exhilaration that came with riding swiftly and independently. or with just one other friend. like shopping.” but seen even in older women and. 10. political.

At the end of the nineteenth century the National American Woman Suffrage Association issued the Women’s Century Calendar. that the new dress was shocking and indecent.” and proclaimed.. in an age of great concern with race progress and social Darwinism.issue [than that of social decorum].” (This companionship resulted from the increasing occasions when young riders would go out together alone for lack of an adult willing to accompany them on bicycles. strength. The access to the world outside the home allowed by bicycling was not only important in and of itself. which was in keeping with the popular sense of propriety of the time. Opposition to women cyclists was not only expressed by the men who most clearly benefitted from the now-threatened status quo. like Jennings. which “listed all the progressive developments for women over the course of the previous hundred years.” This emphasizes his view. was rarely a more attractive option for young women than the independence offered by cycling. and consequent happiness. “I have come to the conclusion that the cycle offers the best available means for ensuring health. comfortable with the status quo. Jennings takes for granted that a woman’s happiness stems only from health. 13. but because it seemed to herald a new social freedom that must soon be validated through voting enfranchisement. they had little effect on the growing popularity of cycling. whom he refers to as. Those. and to be what one pleases. “an authority on the diseases of women. writing with an affection for cycling but a commitment to the status quo wanted to dispel fears of the potential social upheaval that stemmed from the increasing popularity of the bike. strength. He goes on to quote a Dr. one of several conservative women’s clubs that organized in opposition to the women’s rights movement. who wrote. “‘The greatest achievement of the woman movement within the century. and beauty. and societal restrictions that it entailed. was whether the physical strain of cycling would affect women’s childbearing abilities. motivated by a sense of propriety and outrage at the habits of the younger generations.) The women of these organizations represented a loud but small minority.” One response at the time to these worries came from medical doctor Oscar Jennings.” As a successful middle class man during this time. However. as their commitment to the status quo. to say to go. and that the new familiarity and companionship with men led to immorality. Cycling gained new participants through the 1890s. becoming a symbol of increasing political and social freedoms for average women and activists alike.” with the reassurance that “moderate use of cycling exercise is calculated to favour in women the regularity of the utero-ovarian functions. The Woman’s Rescue League. Lutand. and beauty.’ the liberty ‘to do. . claimed “cycling prevented married women from having children. was the “personal liberty” which is now conceded to women.” as quoted by Jean Matthews in The Rise of the New Woman. that women’s role in society consisted solely of birthing and raising children..” quoted from Sidney Aronson’s “The Sociology of the Bicycle.

Once women created a space for themselves outside the home they never completely retreated to their traditional sphere. .14. The issue of women’s suffrage. at least for the time. cycling brought women out of the home literally. inspired by the successes gained in part through the popularization of bicycling. the Calendar still did capture the triumphs of the nineteenth century. would remain a technological product of the advances of men. there was no escaping the fact that to be equal to men they had to struggle to enter the world created and dominated by men. If overly optimistic. which were by turns reflected in and inspired by the increasing presence of bicycles. The threat to the comfortable existing state of affairs presented by the movement and implicit in the new liberties taken by women in public created a backlash that stalled progress on women’s rights through the first decade of the twentieth century. the central goal of the Women’s Rights movement. was overly optimistic. was considered in Congress throughout the 1880s and 90s but after 1896 the issue was not discussed again until 1913. but also because of the metaphor of personal freedom so deeply linked to the idea of the personal vehicle. Although the years immediately following the bicycle boom did not see quite the sustained rate of positive changes that activists had hoped for. Unfortunately. Bicycles reflected this conundrum: the adoption of the bike as a rallying point for the movement meant that symbolism of women’s liberation. the victories won by female cyclists had lasting long term effects on society. Even though women largely led the agitation for civil liberties. the anticipation at the turn of the century. 15.

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