How The Bicycle Liberated Victorian Women & Kick-Started American Feminism

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
Despite the era’s prudish, repressed reputation, the Victorians loved a good craze — the weirder, the better. Well-to-do men and women alike found themselves gripped by fashionable momentary obsessions with novelties, from blue-and-white porcelain to orchids to roller skates to spiritual seances. When the late 1870s brought the so-called “Ordinary” or penny farthing bicycle (the epitome of an old-timey bike, with a front wheel many times larger than the rear) into the public eye, the comical-looking contraption was a sensation.

Bicycle mania swept the nation, and the advent of the more manageable “Safety” bicycle — named for its relative safety compared to the high-wheeled penny farthing — meant that even women could get in on the fun. While today it seems completely natural to hop a bike and hit the road, the advent of the bicycle had a hugely liberating (and controversial) impact on women’s lives; for the first time, there was a way for them to leave their houses and embrace their own autonomy without facing social suicide.

A woman born during the Victorian era had precious few options. Middle- and upper-class ladies were expected to marry, give birth to babies (preferably boys), entertain guests, and keep a respectable household — that’s it. A proper lady’s place was in the home, where she whiled away her days strapped into a suffocating corset and cumbersome hoop skirt, minding the servants, popping out children, and serving as an ornamental object for her (hopefully rich) husband to either cossett or ignore as it suited him. Women weren’t meant to exercise their bodies or their minds, which led to generations of frail creatures whose lives were governed by fainting spells and striving for an arsenic-white complexion, no matter how much they secretly yearned to write or debate or explore.

Those who ran afoul of these social conventions ran considerable risk of ostracization and/or "spinsterhood" — a fate which, back then, meant a life of poverty and loneliness. However, once the bicycle entered the picture, all of these bored, idle housewives and daughters were suddenly given a safe, respectable route out of their velvet prisons. They grabbed those handlebars like drowning people straining towards life preservers. As an 1896 issue of Munsey’s Magazine explained, "To men, the bicycle...was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world."

The notion of women freely riding around town on wheels dismayed plenty of staunch traditionalists, especially when those women discovered bloomers. Bloomers (also referred to as “Turkish dress”) were loose pantaloons worn beneath a shortened skirt that soon replaced the customary heavy layers of petticoats and whalebone corsets initially worn by lady cyclists. The “rational dress” movement that had blossomed during the first wave of feminism found renewed traction thanks to the bicycle; its advocates campaigned for less-restrictive garments, moving to abolish the hated tight-laced corset and normalize simpler attire for athletic use. The long skirts and constricting undergarments Victorian ladies were required to wear were impractical, uncomfortable, and dangerous even when sitting, let alone cycling; comfortable, bifurcated bloomers were the obvious answer, and they became immensely popular.
Photo: Mansell/Getty Images.

Of course, a great outcry went up over this daring, immodest turn of events. Newspaper cartoons eviscerated the wearers of bloomers, and members of the media turned up their noses at women who donned a sensible riding outfit to venture out into the world. “Have you ever seen anything more offputting, uglier, meaner than a wench on a bike, wheezing, her face red like a turkey, her eyes reddened by the dust? What a horror!” sniffed a German journalist in 1897.

Women on bikes were also harassed — Emma Eades, one of the first women to ride a bike in London, was attacked with bricks and stones as she pedaled — and despite the obvious health benefits that bicycling offered, doctors warned of the dire effects that it could wreak upon the Victorian lady’s weak physique. They insisted that everything from uterine displacement and infertility to “bicycle face” (a dreadfully unattractive condition apparently characterized by “a hard, clenched jaw and bulging eyes”) was destined to befall any young maid foolish enough to take her brother’s bike out for a spin. Of course, we now know how absurd this logic was, but remember: This was during a time when people used lead and arsenic for face power and thought blackhead pimples were actual worms crawling out of people's faces.

And yet, despite all the opposition, women continued to ride. In 1895, Annie “Londonderry” Cohen Kopchovsky became the first woman to cycle around the world; it took her 15 months, and she did it clad in bloomers and sitting astride a 21-pound men’s Sterling special. Frances Willard, noted suffragist and president of the hugely powerful Women's Christian Temperance Union, vowed to learn how to ride a bike when she was in her 50s, and wrote about her triumphant experience in a book, Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle. The next year, feminist icon and social reformer Susan B. Anthony opined that the bike had bestowed freedom and self-reliance upon the oppressed female masses, decreeing, “I think the bicycle has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat.”

The rise of the bicycle also directly coincided with the birth of The New Woman, an early feminist idea that pushed against the limits of patriarchal oppression. New Women were free-spirited, educated, economically independent, and wholly uninterested in being hidden away in a drawing room under a mound of needlework. These precursors to the 1920s flapper rode bicycles and added their voices to the women’s suffrage movement, rejoicing in their newfound independence, fighting for equality, and barreling towards the future, powered only by two wheels.

Advertisement