The bicycle is a simple invention but with it came freedom for women. Never before were women able to be so mobile and athletic.
The bicycle craze began in the 1890s. Although bicycles had been produced before, these newer versions, “safety bicycles” had pneumatic tires and, by the end of the century, brakes, bells, mirrors and other safety equipment.
Many feminists believed cycling would lead to equality. Why? Because the first bicycles were male dominated contraptions. The late 19th century bicycle could be ridden by a woman and, moreover, ridden just as well as a man. In addition, a woman could travel on her own accord and didn’t have to rely on anyone for transportation.
Women also felt empowered by the sheer act of learning to ride a bicycle, and learning wasn’t impacted by privilege or social class.
Suffragette Susan B. Anthony said in 1896, ”I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.’’
A New Fashion
The craze created a new fashion statement – bloomers. Although bloomers had been invented a half century earlier, female cyclists adopted them.
Bloomers were more practical for cycling than long skirts because they were safer and more comfortable. In style, bloomers resembled a baggier version of boys’ knickerbockers.
The garment was not without controversy. While practical, bloomers were thought to be indecent. Women in bloomers were commonly treated with scorn and even criminally fined.
Not all women riders adopted bloomers. Instead they rode tricycles, which could be ridden with a full skirt.
A less radical style was the divided skirt. It was more modest, but still allowed for a safe ride.
The Oversexed Woman
Bicycling was a cause for alarm for some physicians who felt riding could produce orgasms and, thus, oversexed women. The positioning of a bicycle’s seat would encourage women to masturbate.
Other physicians worried about the damage riding would cause to a woman’s internal organs.
Ministers and the older generations, too, declared that cycling was dangerous and would lead to the ruination of women’s reputations as their morals corrupted. Women would be able to travel unchaperoned, which was especially worrisome for single women.
What’s worse, women had to sit astride the bicycle as riding sidesaddle on a human-powered machine is impossible.
Still the fuss was over nothing; by World War One, it was an everyday occurrence to see a woman riding a bicycle and no one thought anything of it.
The outrage over bicycles was much ado about nothing. What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below.
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