Hello, friends. I am still learning to love cycling. (I’m getting better. I never dread it anymore. And sometimes, I really like it!) With that on my mind, here’s a post from my archives about when feminism met technology in the form of the bicycle.
In her Bicycle Book, Bella Bathurst quotes early American feminist Susan B. Anthony as saying, in 1896, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world”. As Bathurst notes, “It was a surprising claim.”
The earliest bicycles were called velocipedes. They were mass-produced from 1857, but it took a hardy and determined cyclist to appreciate the ride they offered: velocipedes were built of wood, with the later addition of metal tires. When pedalled over patchily paved roads, it’s no wonder they became known as “boneshakers”. The velocipede evolved into the penny-farthing bicycle of the 1870s, with its enormous front wheel. Gears had yet to be invented, so the big wheel enabled the cyclist to ride quickly while pedalling at a reasonable rate. It also improved the ride quality.
However, women of the 1870s were still trapped in highly structured skirts with bustles – possibly an improvement over the huge crinoline of the 1860s, but still terribly cumbersome and constricting.
It’s impossible to think of athletic activity in such clothing, or even what we now consider a normal range of motion. Contrast the lines of Tissot’s gowns (above) with this contemporary instructional video, which shows how tricky it is to mount and dismount a pennyfarthing.
Some women of means briefly considered the tricycle. According to Bathurst, “While out in her carriage one day at Osborne, Queen Victoria spotted a lady on a trike at a distance. Intrigued, she ordered her driver to speed up. The trike rider looked round, realised who her pursuer was, panicked and took off. Sadly, the Queen did not succumb to the temptation to give chase. Instead, she asked to meet the trike’s inventor, James Starley… [and] was pleased enough with the trike to order two. Even so, trike fever never really caught on. Not because there was anything inherently wrong with them, but because the bicycle was better.” It was only with the invention of the safety bicycle in the late 1880s that women began to embrace the machine.
With the safety bicycle came an immediate and predictable public uproar at the spectre of ladies sitting astride a bike, revealing the existence of legs and possibly damaging the “feminine organs of matrimonial necessity” (quoted in Bathurst)! And there was the very real problem of riding whilst wearing a corset and some 20 pounds’ worth of clothing. It was at this moment that cyclists and clothing reformers found common cause.
Bloomers had been worn – and ridiculed – since their invention in 1851, by the American activist Elizabeth Smith Miller. It required huge confidence to wear bloomers in public: even Amelia Bloomer, who lent her name to the garments, had given up on bloomers by 1859 in favour of undergarment reform. Despite the founding of the Rational Dress Society in 1881, the wearing of bloomers or rational dress (ample trousers overlaid with a shorter skirt) was still considered eccentric and even morally suspect.
For example, dress reformer and bicycle enthusiast Lady Harberton was refused service in the ladies’ lounge of the Hautboy Hotel in Surrey on the grounds that she was wearing bloomers. She was directed to the bar, where the only other women were prostitutes. When Lady Harberton sued the hotel, the jury found in favour of the landlady.
Despite such setbacks, the bicycle offered just the necessary incentive for the rational dress movement to stick. Bathurst quotes Rose Macaulay’s description of the sensation of bicycling as “glorious; the nearest approach to wings permitted to man and woman here below”. Speed, independence, and the sensation of flying?
In the long run, the bustle didn’t stand a chance.