The bicycle is a common and convenient mode of transportation for millions of people around the world today, but it was not always so. In the late 19th century, bicycles were a novelty and a source of controversy, especially for women. Bicycles promised freedom, mobility, health and fashion for women who longed to escape the confines of domestic spaces and restrictive clothing. But they also faced resistance, ridicule and danger from a society that was not ready to accept their emancipation.
Bicycles had existed for decades, but they were made of iron and wood, and had a large front wheel and a small rear wheel, making them difficult and dangerous to ride. These high-wheel bicycles, also known as penny farthings, were mainly used by men for racing and touring on rough roads. Women were excluded from these activities, both by their cumbersome skirts and corsets, and by the prevailing attitudes that deemed cycling as unladylike and immoral.
This changed in the 1890s, when a new design of bicycle emerged: the safety bicycle. It had a diamond-shaped frame with equal-sized wheels, air-filled tube tires and gears. It was easier to mount, balance and steer than the high-wheel bicycle, and it allowed riders to gain speed with less effort. The safety bicycle sparked a cycling craze across America and Europe, attracting millions of enthusiasts from all walks of life.
Women were among the most avid adopters of the safety bicycle, as it offered them a new way to explore the world beyond their homes. They could travel farther and faster than ever before, without depending on men or horses for transportation. They could also enjoy the benefits of physical exercise, fresh air and social interaction with other cyclists.
But riding a bicycle also required women to challenge the norms of their time. They had to defy the critics who saw cycling as a threat to their health, morality and femininity. They had to resist the harassment and violence they faced on the roads from hostile drivers, pedestrians and even policemen. And they had to change their fashion to suit their new activity.
Many women opted for lighter skirts, bloomers or even trousers to allow for a less cumbersome ride. They also abandoned their corsets, bustles and long voluminous skirts that impeded their movement and comfort. These changes in women’s clothing were not only practical, but also symbolic of their desire for more sensible and rational fashion.
Some women also used the bicycle as a platform for social change and political activism. They joined clubs, formed associations and demanded membership in the League of American Wheelmen, the largest cycling organization at the time. They advocated for better roads, safer conditions and equal rights for cyclists. They also supported causes such as temperance, suffrage and education.
One of the most famous advocates of cycling for women was Susan B. Anthony, who played a key role in the women’s suffrage movement. She famously said in 1896: “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.”
Another remarkable woman who cycled her way to fame was Annie Londonderry Kopchovsky, who became the first woman to ride around the world on a bicycle in 1895. She embarked on her journey with a wager that she could complete it in 15 months and earn $5,000 along the way. She traveled across America, Europe, Asia and Australia, covering more than 15,000 miles in 15 months. She also worked as a journalist, writing about her adventures for various newspapers.
These are just some examples of how bicycles revolutionized women’s lives in the 19th century. Bicycles gave women a sense of independence, empowerment and joy that they had never experienced before. They also paved the way for further advancements in women’s rights, sports and culture in the following decades.