The 1890s was the peak of the first American bicycle craze and consumers were buying bicycles in large numbers. In 1897 alone, more than two million bicycles were sold in the United States, about one for every 30 inhabitants. What you may not know, however, is that the woman’s rights movement had some major growth with the bicycle! If fact, one-third of all those in the market for a bike were female. These women would prove to play an integral role in the struggle for women's rights.
Susan B. Anthony, who dedicated her life to the women’s suffrage movement, is noted for saying, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling…I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride on a wheel. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance".
For women, the initial struggle was for the right to ride a bicycle at all; this debate lasted until the early 1890s. From the beginning, there were a significant number of people who firmly believed that machinery and athletic activity should remain part of a man’s world and that a woman’s world should remain distinct and separate. Questions surrounding the issue of women on bicycles arose, such as: how women should ride, when they should ride, who they should ride with, what clothing they should ride in and whether they should race. Many critics were convinced that bicycle riding threatened women’s physical and mental health; their hair, complexions, femininity, families, morals and worst of all, their reputations!!
As cycling’s popularity exploded, a new breed of woman was making her mark in the 1890s. “The New Woman” was the term used to describe the modern woman who broke with convention by working outside the home, or eschewed the traditional role of wife and mother, or became politically active in the woman’s suffrage movement or other social issues. The New Woman saw herself as the equal of men and the bicycle helped her assert herself as such!!
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a leader in the women’s movement wrote in an 1895 article for the American Wheelman, that “the bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect, self-reliance….” It was a prophetic statement as women, who were leaving their homes (unchaperoned!) to socialize and cycle on country roads and in parks and becoming more involved in public life. Young women were gaining more freedoms and with that came confidence and a feeling of empowerment as the Victorian era drew to a close.
As women learned to ride bicycles they not only gained physical mobility that broadened their horizons beyond the neighborhoods in which they lived, they discovered a new-found sense of freedom of movement, that the cumbersome fashions of the Victorian era could not provide, as well as by Victorian sensibilities. The restrictive clothing of the era -- corsets, long, heavy, multi-layered skirts worn over petticoats or hoop, and long sleeved shirts with high collars -- inhibited freedom of movement. Such clothing inhibited even modest forms of exercise or exertion. Cycling required a more practical form of dress, and large billowing skirts and corsets started to give way to bloomers (see previous blog). Although bloomers first appeared decades earlier, and a major social battle was waged over their propriety, the cycling craze practically mandated changes in women’s attire for any woman who wanted to ride.