The history of women and cycling is a fascinating subject for all women who love riding their bikes.
But it’s also essential in understanding why there are women in the world today fighting for their right to cycle.
The greatest cycling movement for western women took place in the 1890’s of the Victorian era.
This was a time in history when roles were strictly adhered to depending on social class and gender. Any women challenging social norms were viewed and treated as a direct threat to the morals of society.
Women’s rights crossed over with the cycling movement and the bicycle became a symbol for freedom.
The Penny Farling was launched in 1869. Pedals were attached to the front wheel as the chain was not yet used in main stream bicycle design.
Front wheels could be as large as 1.5 metres in diameter! This allowed bicycles to travel more distance with each pedal stroke.
Such design made cycling a dangerous activity. Even riding over a stone could turn any cyclist into a flying machine with disastrous consequences …
The late 1870’s saw the first chains being used in bicycle design and both wheels were now the same size.
These were known as safety bicycles and in the 1880’s their ease of use caused cycling’s popularity to sweep across Britain, Europe and the USA.
The cycling craze took place in a time when rules of society did not permit women to wear what they wanted.
Women were expected to wear clothing which enhanced their shape, such a tight corsets and heavy skirts trailing several inches on the ground. These clothes were painful to wear, caused health problems and restricted movement. They were certainly not suitable for cycling.
Loose fitting trousers called bloomers appeared on the market to address health issues and allow greater freedom of movement. They caused an uproar across society and were fiercely rejected, with men even signing pledges not to associate with women who wore bloomers. A women’s right to dress as she wants has always been at the forefront of women’s rights movements.
More women cycling saw more women wearing bloomers but not without reprisal and women suffered ridicule and fines from the local authorities.
Outcries about women cycling also came from the widespread belief that women were sexually stimulated when riding their bicycles. Specially designed ‘hygienic’ saddles were offered so women would not get aroused.
Doctors were in fierce debate about the negative affects cycling had on women’s health who’s bodies were apparantly so fragile. Some even said the vibrations of the wheels could lead to death in women.
But women were determined to ride their bicycles and they were determined to live their lives equal to men.
In 1896 women’s cycling and women’s rights were so intertwined that Susan B Anthony, president of the National American Women Suffrage Association, declared that cycling had:
“…done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
The importance of the bicycle to the women’s liberation movement was covered in a great article by Soren O’Malley in Cranked Mag who wrote:
‘The debate over women and bicycling was fierce between women striving for social independence and those who viewed that same independence as a threat to the morals of Christian society. For more than thirty years, the subject was continually discussed from almost every angle imaginable and when “the new woman” emerged from the fray, she was riding a bicycle’ – page 24, Issue #4 To read the full article click here.
Understanding our own history of women and cycling allows us empathy and consideration for the women in the world who’s moment in history is RIGHT NOW for their fight to cycle
“Few articles ever used by man have created so great a revolution in social conditions as the bicycle.”
US Census Report, 1900
For more information on the history of women, the bicycle and social change visit cycling historian Sheila Hanlon’s website: