The bicycle is a simple invention, but for woman, it became a symbol of freedom, mobility and athleticism. For society, it became a symbol of change and upsetting the status quo.
The bicycle craze of the 1890s began with the introduction of the “safety bicycle.” Although bicycles had been produced before, these newer versions had pneumatic tires and, before the century was over, 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 safety 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 and didn’t need 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.
”I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world,’’ suffragist Susan B. Anthony said in 1896.
A New Fashion
The craze created a new fashion statement – bloomers. Bloomers were invented in the 1840s, but female cyclists adopted them and made the garment commonplace.
In style, bloomers resembled a baggier version of boys’ knickerbockers. They were practical for cycling because they were comfortable and were safer than long skirts.
The garment was not without controversy. While practical, bloomers were considered indecent. Women in bloomers were commonly treated with scorn and even criminally fined.
Hattie Strange of Chicago was one such woman. She was fined $25 for disorderly conduct for wearing flesh colored tights with her bloomers.
Not all women riders adopted bloomers. Some wore the less radical divided-skirt, which was more modest but still allowed for a safe ride. Others opted for a tricycle, which could be ridden with a full skirt.
Cycling fashions for women became big business. One dressmaker made $5,000 selling her patented cycling skirt to a New York firm.
The Oversexed Woman
Bicycling was dangerous to morality and health, critics warned.
The activity alarmed some physicians who claimed riding could produce orgasms and, thus, oversexed women. The positioning of a bicycle’s seat would encourage women to masturbate, they said.
Other physicians worried that riding would cause damage to a woman’s internal organs.
Ministers and the older generations declared cycling dangerous and said it would lead to the ruination of women’s reputations as their morals corrupted. Women were able to travel unchaperoned, making single women especially vulnerable. Worse, women sat astride the bicycle because riding sidesaddle was impossible.
The fuss was short lived. By World War I, it was an ordinary occurrence to see women riding bicycles, and it ceased to be a worrisome activity.
Updated: 19 October 2020