The sport of cycling has been associated with men for a very long time. However, this wasn’t always the case. In fact, there was a time when bicycles were not only popular among women, but were highly sought by them. Why? Because there was a time in American history where women were stifled by societal constraints and overbearing laws that did not give them the same rights as men. Fortunately, bicycles underwent a significant transformation just in time for women to hop on the ride to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The ride wasn’t an easy one, but it was necessary. The bicycle gave women of the late 1800’s a voice and it is because of the bicycle and the determination of these women that the future of all American women was drastically changed for the better.
The velocipede, better known now as the bicycle, first came to be in the early 1800’s in Germany and was improved upon by various innovative bicycle-lovers, including Englishman Dennis Johnson, who designed and implemented the addition of an adjustable seat, an armrest, and eventually a modified drop frame model for female riders. In the 1820’s, pedals and cranks were added to the bicycle and by 1965, an archaic version of the bicycle we know today, the Bone Shaker, made its way over to the United States. Bicycles went through a renaissance; design changes, like rubber tires, steel frames, and more impact absorptive seat coils, along with its overall reduced weight, made the bicycle more appealing to bicycle enthusiasts worldwide.
In 1976, Colonel Albert Augustus Pope first set eyes on High Wheeler [bicycles] at an exhibition, but dismissed its practicality until he realized what these High Wheelers had to offer: speed. He quickly learned how to ride a High Wheeler, had 50 High Wheeler duplicates made in his shoe-making supply factory, and opened a riding school (complete with a female instructor and bloomers available to be borrowed by students) at his factory. Consumed by his love for bicycles, he soon converted his shoe business into a bicycle business. In 1878, after buying the patent rights for all bicycle-related designs, Pope launched the American bicycle industry. He created a market and community that previously did not exist, which included funding a cycler’s handbook that he would distribute to thousands of people, importing and distributing cycling articles and pamphlets from the UK, and backing a monthly cycling magazine.
As Pope continued to develop a market for bicycles, a bicycle industry started to rise. In 1885, approximately 11,000 bicycles were manufactured by the only six American bicycle manufacturers. By 1896, an annual production of one million bicycles, produced by approximately 126 manufacturers, was reported. The increasing popularity of bicycles also prompted the establishment of bicycle repair shops, as well as bicycle and bicycle accessory stores. Not only were people excited about riding bicycles, but they wanted to have the latest and greatest bicycle accessories, too!
As bicycles became more popular, new political and social issues also arose. Before bicycles took off, it was uncommon to come across anyone riding them. After the many advances that made them more attainable and desirable, cyclists popped up in various towns in cities by the tens, hundreds, and eventually thousands. As more cyclists found their way onto the roads, bicycle-involved incidents and accidents became more common occurrences, prompting the need for never-before-established laws and regulations that pertained to bicycle-related incidents. In 1880, Pope went so far as to establish an organization, The League of American Wheelmen: The Law, with several other bicycle enthusiasts. The focus was to fight for the right to ride. In other words, they sought to promote bicycle riding and establish rights for cyclists, organized rides and races, and initiated a nationwide road improvement and bike path development plan. While some of the new laws and measures addressed important issues, such as bike-related collisions and the use of lights at night, others were put in place to curb women’s rights and to ensure that they remained “in their place.” This should come as no surprise, considering this was during a time where women had little, if any, free will, and the fact that women simply weren’t “supposed” to ride bicycles.
Not only were bicycle names like the “Bone Shaker” more appealing to men, but the size and weight of the first bicycles - some as heavy as 150 pounds - made it very difficult for women to ride and control safely. In addition to these early American bicycles providing a rough ride that was difficult to maintain control of, the bikes weren’t especially friendly to womens’ fashion trends at the time, and society was not ready to see any significant change in how it viewed or treated women at the time. It was clear that women were expected to steer clear of these two-wheeled wonders. Little did anyone know that these obstacles, along with plenty others, would fuel a bicycle renaissance and pave the way for women’s equality.
While the first bicycles made their way to the United States in the early 1800’s, it wasn’t until the latter part of the century when bicycle design was nearly “perfected;” bikes now sported two wheels of the same size and more functional chains, cranks, pedals, and braking systems. The woman’s bicycle was modified with a drop frame, one of the most significant developments of women’s bicycle design, accommodating the cyclist’s poofy skirt so that she could straddle the bike without running the risk of getting injured. Prior to the development of the drop frame, riding a bicycle while wearing proper attire was nearly impossible, as the cyclist would run the risk of having her many layers of petticoats trapped in the drivetrain, or she simply had to ride “side saddle”. In response to this danger, two kinds of side saddle bicycles were invented, one by a man and the other by a woman, with the hopes of appealing to female riders. Unfortunately, neither model was successful. Tricycles were also looked at as a solution, and after some structural changes - making it a single-seat bike with pedals - it was a hit among delivery people, doctors, and wealthy women (including Queen Victoria of England herself, who ordered two). This dangerous challenge prompted one woman to invent a skirt fastener, but most women seemed to prefer alternatives: bloomers and shorter skirts.
Neither bloomers nor shorter skirts were a novel idea at the time, but neither was especially popular. Introduced in the 1850’s, these alternatives received so much pushback, that advocates for these items abandoned the fight. It wasn’t until bicycles became popular and women became more interested in clothing that was designed for comfort and functionality, not beauty and grace, that they re-entered the fashion world. Whether women chose to wear bloomers or skirts was really a regional and personal decision. Many women considered bloomers to be ugly and opted for short skirts when possible, but ladies who lived in windier regions typically opted for bloomers. Whatever the preference, one thing was for sure: corsets, petticoats, and crinoline hoop skirts were out; bloomers, short skirts, and unrestrictive clothing was in. Despite the scandalous message that society interpreted from the bloomer-short-skirt baring bicycle riders, women pushed on and wore those bloomers and short skirts anyway. Little did society know that a change in women’s attire was just the beginning.
The bicycle provided women the opportunity to not only be creative problem solvers, but it encouraged them to dare to do what was right for them, not what was right for society. The petticoat issue was one of the first of many that women had to overcome so that they could part take in bicycling; it prompted women to find ways to improve the bicycle so that it was more female-friendly. So, for the first time in US history, women-submitted patents started pouring in by the dozens. Prior to that point, very few women ever submitted patents. Indirectly, bicycles gave women the confidence to be innovative and an opportunity to show off their intellect and creativity in what was otherwise considered a man’s activity.
Bicycles quickly became a symbol of liberation to women. Until that time, the 19th century was a time of oppression for women, and more often than not, they had little choice but to comply with societal norms. It was a time where women were expected to remain in or near the home. In the event that they had reason to leave their home, it was viewed as commonplace for women to remain with a male escort at all times and most often to commute either by foot or by horse-drawn carriage; anything that deviated from these societal expectations was considered unacceptable. Many women sought and found solitude in these two-wheeled machines, which single-handedly transformed an era marked by oppression and opened the floodgates to new social liberties and opportunities. They provided women with a quick, relatively safe, independent form of transportation - a way for them to not only toss their suffocating clothing, but a way to ditch their suffocating chaperones and claim their freedom. For the first time, women had a say in the course of their lives.
Perhaps Susan B. Anthony said it best when when she told New York World’s Nellie Bly that bicycling has “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world” in 1986. Unfortunately, not everyone shared Anthony’s opinion. Touted as immoral, unethical, and compromising to women’s sexuality, an anti-women-on-bicycles movement also formed. Doctors, clergymen, and other “educated professionals,” which included women, were quick to voice their opinions about and objections to women riding bicycles. The bicycle, it was claimed, was detrimental to women’s health because it could jeopardize their ability to have children or “damage or overstimulate the pelvis.” Women’s church involvement, it was also said, was negatively affected once they became involved in bicycle riding. Resistance to women riding became so severe that in some cases, women suffered legal consequences and public shaming. For example, in 1895, a New York Board of School Trustees attempted to prohibit three of its female school teachers from wearing bloomers and riding their bicycles to and from school. They claimed that it was “not proper” for female teachers to be wearing bloomers, posing the question, “How would school rooms look with the lady teachers parading among boys and girls, wearing bloomers?” Thankfully, there was plenty of research and studies, even then, to disprove the negative claims. Medical research actually credited a decrease in cigar smoking, a decrease in deaths related to consumption/tuberculosis, and a decline in asthma incidences and complications. Studies from Chicago claimed that a decrease in the use of morphine was attributed to the bicycle; users slept better after a bicycle ride than they did after a dose of morphine. However, no actual evidence, aside from “professional opinions,” supported the notion that women’s sexual reproductive systems or bodies were damaged or hurt.
It was also commonly believed that women riding bicycles and wearing bloomers was the beginning of a societal shift that would eventually result in women blurring gender roles. Once women started wearing clothing that was similar to that of men’s trousers, it was argued, it was only a matter of time before women started competing against men for their roles, responsibilities, and rights. While women’s reproductive health and safety were often cited as reasons for why women should steer clear of bikes, the fear that women’s roles and rights might change could not be denied.
As society continued to protest women riding bicycles, women riders continued to prove themselves as legitimate athletes and worthy opponents. Many women were riding 100-mile long “century” rides, some riding several centuries in a row. Some undertook the challenge of endurance riding trips that lasted as long as a week (and sometimes even longer). In 1896, Dora Reinhard, a Colorado native, earned herself the bragging rights of covering more miles than any other woman in the United States; she rode a total of 17,196 miles and rode a century a day for twenty days straight. Women even started part-taking in the same races as men and certainly held their own.
To say that bicycles had an affect on the lives of American women in the latter part of the 1800’s is an understatement...because they were so much more. Bicycles were quite literally the Steel Steeds upon which they rode away from an era of oppression and toward a new life of independence. Women felt empowered enough to speak up for what they believed in. From fighting for their right to ride a bike and to wear whatever they wanted while doing so, to bicycle racing alongside men, to eventually riding their bikes to the voting polls ─ the bike opened the floodgates to a myriad of opportunities for women to finally grab the bike by the handlebars and take control of their lives.