In the late 1800s, American ladies broke free of a limitative Victorian society and started on the road to equality, due largely to one contraption: the bicycle.
In the words of author Peter Zheutlin, "As women learned to ride bicycles, they not only gained physical mobility that broadened their horizons beyond the neighborhoods in which they lived; they discovered a newfound sense of freedom of movement, a freedom before circumscribed by the cumbersome fashions of the Victorian era, as well as by Victorian sensibilities." The wheel helped women free from the confines of home and hearth, as they pedalled forth in divided skirts, perhaps to agitate for social change.
At a brief period in the late 1860s, an original two-wheeler known as a velocipede had been popular, but the difficulty of riding in skirts kept most women away. The ordinary bicycle was difficult to control, hard to brake, and almost impossible to mount in a long, heavy skirt. As a result, most of they were ridden by young men and were less fashion than among the wealthy. With the coming of “safety” bicycle, the problem of hard to push on and baking was improved. In 1888, pneumatic tires were invented and provided a smoother ride. Both sexes of America fond of the safety bicycle with great enthusiasm, as the annual output of ordinary bicycles never topped 11,000 even at its height in 1885, one million safety bicycles were produced in 1896 alone. And this time, it wasn't only men who rode—the bicycle was so popular with women that by 1897, the League of American Wheelmen counted more than 22,000 women among its ranks, a full third of the organisation's national membership.
But for women, adopting this new method of transport was filled with social and physical landmines. For one, there was a woman's morality to consider: in particular, her sexual "innocence." Doctors worried about the women’s disease consequences for female bike riders and wrote medical journal articles with titles like "Harmful Effects of the Bicycle Upon the Girl's Pelvis." The problem, as they saw it, lay with the design of the bicycle saddle. An explanation from a physician in 1896 said, if a woman rode with her weight too far forward, it might lead "to friction and heating of the parts where it is very undesirable and may lead to dangerous practices."
Not everyone was taken in by the bicycle's so-called threat to women's bodies. In 1896, a writer for the Chicago Daily News scoffed at the concern from the medical community, saying, "When a woman wants to learn anything or do anything useful or even have any fun, there is always someone to warn her that it is her duty to keep well." Beside to heath issues, there was still the widespread fear that women's newfound mobility posed its own risks to women's morality.
Critics worried about that, cycling would cause women go into a life of sin, they also worry about what these ladies would be wearing during the process. The high bar between the seat and handlebars of the diamond-framed safety bicycle meant that a woman had to lift her leg up and over the rear of the bike to mount the saddle. In 1888, the drop-frame bike was introduced resolved this issue by allowing a skirt-clad rider to step refined through the frame when mounting. But ignore the frame shape, ankle-length skirts remained problematic, as they could interfere with pedalling or become entangled in the gears and chain. In 1891, a woman in Sporting Life magazine recalled how she was once "skimming along like a bird" when she felt "an awful tug" at her skirt and hit the ground. "My dress was so tightly wound round the crank bracket that I could not get up until I had got it free."
Women cyclists who avoided the problem by wearing bloomers, knickerbockers, or divided skirts were taunted on the street and criticised in the press, and from the pulpit. Whether they aspired to promote women's rights or wearing men's trousers, many wheelwomen adopted some form of "reform" clothing in a short time. In November 1895, a women's magazine published by the Butterick pattern company, called The Delineator, offered three pages of "Bicycle Garments" to give readers some 50 patterns for the same. Corsets were less dangerous than skirts when it came to riding, but they hampered a woman's ability to get deep breathe and free move. Special bicycle corsets, "made shorter and more flexible than those for ordinary use," were soon available for purchase. Observing the number of bicycling women decked out in knickerbockers and relaxed waistlines, more than one contemporary commentator surprised at how wheelwomen seemed to have "accepted at a jump innovations that dress reformers have been trying for years to bring into favour."
Women's-rights advocates were keen-ly aware of the connections between cycling outfits and women's civil liberties. Elizabeth Cady Stanton commented in 1895, "Men found that flying coat tails were ungainly and that their baggy trousers were in the way [when cycling] so they changed their dress to suit themselves...We did not bother our heads about their cycling clothes, and why should they meddle with what we want to wear?"
The idea that physical freedom led to mental liberation, and by extension to a political awakening being popular—which is probably why the vision of women on bicycles terrified conservative minds. Riding the wheel, one became "alert, active, quick-sighted, and keenly alive as well as to the rights of others as to what is due yourself," wrote Maria Ward in Bicycling for Ladies. One much-discussed cycling and women's-rights figurehead was 24-year-old immigrant Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, who, in 1894, accepted a challenge from a men's cycling club to circumnavigate the globe on two wheels. Rechristening herself Annie Londonderry (the name of one of her corporate sponsors), the mother of three successfully made the journey in 15 months, dressed in a men's riding suit and carrying only a change of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver (which she pulled on some muggers in France). When she returned home, she became a writer for New York World and proclaimed, "I am a journalist and a 'new woman,' if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do." A year later, Susan B. Anthony succinctly concluded that cycling had "done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world."
The ride to women's freedom was no easy cruise. After Londonderry circled the globe, it still took activists another quarter century of hard work to win women's right to vote in 1920. At that time, the bicycle had become a familiar and sometimes-overlooked facet of everyday life instead of a cutting-edge technology. Of course, much has changed since then. Professional athletes and weekend warriors ride the streets in sports bras and microfiber tights, barely giving a thought to their cycling foremothers. Today, you will not give an extra look to a sight of a woman on a bicycle, unless she's blasting past you on a tricked-out fixie.