How bicycles boosted the women’s rights movement


When you think of the fight for women’s
rights you probably think of pivotal figures such as Jane Addams, Susan B. Anthony, and
Sojourner Truth. But squarely in the center of this battle
was one tool that completely changed the game. Susan B. Anthony said that it did “more
to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” That tool was … the bicycle? To understand how, you first have to understand
the bicycle craze of the late 1800s. By the mid 19th century the “ordinary,”
or penny-farthing, was the most common kind of bicycle. It was named that because its vastly different
wheel sizes resembled the coin currency of the day, a penny and a farthing. You got it. You may have seen examples of these in Victorian
illustrations or at your local steampunk meetup. Aside from looking completely ridiculous,
these bikes were unwieldy, difficult to operate, and actually super dangerous. Because of the unstable center of gravity,
hitting even the smallest bump in the road could send a rider over the front in what
was affectionately referred to as a “header.” They were also difficult for women to ride. It turns out it’s virtually impossible to
ride a penny-farthing while wearing the giant hoop skirts that were in fashion at the time. Then in 1885 a man came along named John Kemp
Starley who said he “felt the time had arrived for solving the problem of the cycle.” He released his invention, the “Rover safety
bicycle,” which was basically the first incarnation of what we now consider the modern
bicycle. It had two 26-inch wheels, a diamond shaped
frame, and a rear drive chain system. Bikes became smaller, safer, and more practical
— and guess what, America f***ing loved them. Men and women alike flocked to these “noiseless
steeds” in droves. In 1897 alone, over 2 million bicycles were
sold. Even though these new modern bicycle designs
were becoming enormously popular, and the “drop frame” construction did make it
safer and easier to ride, biking in a big, flowing skirt still sucked. At that time many women dressed in voluminous
skirts with lots of slips underneath and ruffles and that was not practical on a bicycle. The new bicycle craze helped usher in a “rational
dress movement” among women, which advocated moving away from uncomfortable, restrictive
dresses. “Bloomers,” baggy undergarments that were
more comfortable and practical than hoop skirts, were popular in the 1850s. With the growing popularity of bicycles though
in the late 19th century, they came back with a vengeance and were adopted by prominent
suffragettes of the time. These changes were threatening to some men
though, and many viewed women wearing pants as somehow depraved or immoral. For some reason some men were not happy with
the idea of women wearing bifurcated garments. Doctors also chimed in, warning about potential
health risks for female cyclists like depression, heart palpitations, as well as something called
“bicycle face,” which was said to cause women to become “flushed,” “pale,”
and could result in “dark shadows under their eyes.” Still, none of this deterred women. In 1894, after hearing two wealthy Boston
men bet $10,000 that a woman couldn’t travel around the globe on a bicycle, Annie Londonderry,
a 5’3”, 100-pound housewife that had never ridden a bike before, took on the challenge
and with only a pearl handled revolver and change of underwear, braved the desert, wars,
and collisions with pigs on her journey around the world, which she completed in 1895. This mass adoption of bicycles significantly
helped the feminist movement of the day. It changed the modes of dress and gave women
increased mobility, but more importantly it gave them a sense of autonomy. In 1890, just five years after the introduction
of the safety bicycle, the National American Woman Suffrage Association was formed with
the express purpose of lobbying state to state for women’s right to vote. Two of its founders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth
Cady Stanton are quoted as saying that “woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle.” And that’s exactly what they did in 1920.