page 24, Issue #4
The maiden with her wheel of old
Sat by the fire to spin,
While lightly through her careful hold
The flax slid out and in.
Today her distaff, rock and reel
Far out of sight are hurled
And now the maiden with her wheel
Goes spinning round the world.
The Victorian Era
The Victorian Era was a time of growth and change for people of the western world. Late in the 19th century these social changes accelerated. With the beginning of the industrial revolution came a new era of a rising middle class and for the first time many people had a lifestyle which included a certain amount of leisure time. A number of recreational activities became popular with the upper and middle classes: croquet/lawn tennis, roller skating, water activities, horseback riding and not the least of which, bicycling. While bicycling was initially the folly of the elite, many, including those wishing to emulate the social practices of the upper class gentry became enthusiastic patrons of the sport.(Victorian Station, bicycling) Not everybody took to bicycling, however. There were many who considered the machines to be the “invention of the devil” as did Swithin Forsyte when a “penny farthing had startled his greys at Brighton in 1874”. (Starrs, 73) While some found these activities to be symbolic of a decline in morals, as they tended to be frivolous and often distracted an individual from the more sobering past times like ones’ work and religious obligations, increasing numbers were making the most of the lifestyle the new society had to offer. This blossoming social scene allowed not only the mixing of social classes, but the opportunity for men and women to mingle to some degree as well. Social roles were divided along strict lines of class as well as sex and while working class women toiled in factories the upper class ladies of the day were considered to be the fair sex, or the gentle sex. (Ritchie, 147) One of the biggest perceived threats to morality in the social norm was the changing roles of women in society at that time. In the face of a mostly unwritten assortment of laws about how they were to live their lives, these women struggled for the right to do as they pleased in a society that was organized and dominated by men. More traditional older women aggressively guarded these standards as well. The debate over women and bicycling was fierce between women striving for social independence and those who viewed that same independence as a threat to the morals of Christian society. For more than thirty years, the subject was continually discussed from almost every angle imaginable and when “the new woman” emerged from the fray, she was riding a bicycle.
The Victorian Lady
A lady walks quietly through the streets, seeing and hearing nothing that she ought not to, recognizing acquaintances with a courteous bow and friends with words of greeting. She is always unobtrusive, never talks loudly, or laughs boisterously, or does anything to attract the attention of the passers-by. She walks along in her own quiet, lady-like way, and by her preoccupation is secure from any annoyance. A true lady in the street, as in the parlor is modest, discreet, kind and obliging. (Victorian Station, Lady On The Street)
The art of being a Victorian lady was a sophisticated discipline with very specific guidelines. For the middle and upper class men and women of Europe and the United states, the classic ideal of women’s beauty exaggerated the shape of a woman’s body while covering almost all of her skin. (Dodge, 122) The combination of long heavy skirts and constricting corsets greatly restricted women’s mobility. There was also the matter of several layers of petticoats, hat and gloves. The corset was a symbol of pedigree for the Victorian lady, much like the foot binding among Chinese social elite; the fact that a woman was helpless and dependent on others meant that she was of high stature. Her value resided in her status as being “kept”. The term “straight laced” comes from the age of the corset and women who did not wear a corset were morally suspect and considered to be “loose”. Even doctors encouraged the use of the corset, claiming that it strengthened women’s otherwise weak bodies. (Dodge, 122) Generally it was believed that women should be protected from the dangers of over exertion and sweat. These erroneous medical opinions upheld the tradition of women being cloistered within their homes, leading somewhat demur lives. During this time period women were subject to limitations in their involvement in the predominantly male public spheres of education, work and politics.
Women’s Struggle for Emancipation
The modern women’s movement in the United States dates back to the late 1840’s. Amelia Bloomer and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had been working for women’s suffrage and published their first emancipation journal, a temperance paper called “The Lily” in 1849. (Ritchie, 149) This represented the first wave of the battle for dress reform, against the corset and hoop skirt. In 1851 Amelia Bloomer’s cousin, Mrs. Libby Miller, visited her in Seneca Falls New York wearing a Turkish inspired fashion of her own invention and causing a local scandal. This shocking debut attracted the public’s attention for a short time and Bloomer published an essay that was reprinted in a number of newspapers around the U.S. extolling the benefits of the garment, earning her a degree of fame and infamy. Thus the “bloomer” was born. Eventually she gave up the cause of the bloomer because she felt that the public’s reaction was overshadowing her reputation as a writer. (Jolique, 3) The conservative elements of society voiced their objections based on fears that the wearing of “bifurcated” (divided in two) garments by women would lead to other masculine traits and that it might cause women to become “inverts” or in other words, lesbian. (Jolique, 3) The mayor of Chattanooga, New York initiated a law banning bloomers as a “menace to the peace and good morals of the male residents of the city” and a group of men in Norwich swore an oath not to associate with any ladies in the bloomer costume. (Debate, 4) Those women who were brave enough to ride the tricycle in public considered it a privilege that they were allowed to ride at all and both bloomers and women on cycles were topics discussed by lawmakers until the early 1890s. Women in bloomers complained of being “ridiculed, fined and even treated like a prostitute by local authorities”. (Hendrick, 2) As one female tricyclist wrote to Trycyclist magazine “The result of the adoption of such an outré dress would be that no lady either could or would ride and subject herself to the insults such a novel costume would entail”. (Ritchie, 152) The threat of a tarnished reputation consistently deterred most women from sporting the bloomer, with its politically radical associations. Mrs. King, an ardent emancipationist explained in an exasperated reply to the Tricyclist: “…the ladies and gentlemen who at present ride cycles are of that class who are so dreadfully afraid of not being thought ladies and gentlemen, that they cannot venture on any novelty in dress, or appear to countenance it until it has received the cachet of a superior class”. (Ritchie, 153) Even among the more progressive women however, some felt that it was important to wear more conservative clothing so as not to distract attention from more important concerns like the struggle for the right to divorce and the right to own property. The Rational Dress Society was founded in England in 1888 to encourage women to give up their corsets, weighted skirts and heeled and pointy shoes.(Dodge, 126) The English lady tended to be a bit more proper than the Amelia Bloomers and Mary Walkers in the U.S. and women cyclists kept their skirts to avoid association with the feminist radicals. In France, while much of the cycling practiced by women also began indoors, bicycle-riding in the streets of Paris became an opportunity for women to parade the racy new fashions of the day and the cycling costume was considered very chic and modern. Some French women were even known to race bicycles as early as 1868, though the scantily clad “velocipedestrienne” performing for the men at the music hall was far from a symbol of emancipation. (Ritchie, 148,149) At the turn of the century dress reform was practically mandated by most women bicyclists and the bloomer, considered to be so outrageous when it first appeared decades earlier, saw an enormous boost in popularity. Although bloomers remained out of reach for the ladies of polite society who still considered the “rational dress” to be too unconventional, the more progressive women cyclists enjoyed the freedoms of a variety of bloomer-influenced fashions.
The History of the Bicycle
When man invented the bicycle he reached the peak of his attainments. Here was a machine of precision and balance for the convenience of man. And (unlike subsequent inventions for man’s convenience) the more he used it, the fitter his body became. Here, for once, was a product of man’s brain that was entirely beneficial to those who used it, and of no harm or irritation to others. Progress should have stopped when man invented the bicycle.
—Elizabeth West (Perry, 160)
Before the arrival of the clamorous internal combustion engine, inventive minds of the times were preoccupied with the development of the bicycle. Since 1817 when Karl von Drais invented the two wheeled walking machine he named the Draisienne, the evolution of the bicycle had the attention of a fascinated public. (Jolique, 3) In 1819 a man named Denis Johnson made some ladies hobby horses which he designed to be ridden by women in skirts and there were a few other cumbersome machines produced around that period which were probably used in the gardens of country houses. (Ritchie, 147) The next step in the evolution of the bicycle was the “Ordinary” or “Penny Farthing”. The concept for this design was that, in the days before chain driven bicycles and gearing, the approach to build a faster machine was to build a larger wheel. The Ordinary functioned by way of a front wheel direct drive and was designed to allow for the largest front wheel that a man could straddle so that the machine could cover as much ground as possible with each pedal revolution. The typical Ordinary had a front wheel as large as five feet in diameter.(Zheutlin, Women on Wheels, 2) Adventurous young men set off on increasingly longer record breaking rides, braving the hazards of treacherous terrain, wild animals and robbery by highwaymen. Only a few attempts were made to adapt this unlikely design to women’s dress. The bicycle builder James Starley at the Coventry Machinist’s Company made a side-saddle, lever-driven model in 1872 which, while a nice gesture, was an impractical design. (Ritchie, 151) The Ordinary bicycle prevented women from participating in the sport for nearly twenty years. There was simply no practical way to get around the hoopskirt issue with this design. For the most part, and for many years, women had to stand by idly and watch as the men in their lives experienced the new sensations of bicycling. As the bicycle evolved further, different methods of propulsion were devised. With the establishment of the chain driven rear wheel and reduction gearing the wheel sizes became smaller, opening up many new possibilities in design. (Zheutlin, Women on Wheels, 2) The search for an expanding market inspired the bicycle manufacturers to create a machine that would allow a woman to ride in a skirt and corset without sacrificing her dignity. Great measures were taken to solve this dilemma and many experimental designs followed. Special “lightly boned” corsets were marketed for tricycling ladies like those advertised by The American Lady Corset Company, which offered “one hundred dollars of free bicycle insurance with every biking corset sold”. (Debate, 4) The first practical inroads towards the acceptance of female cyclists in public came by way of the tricycle which allowed women to ride somewhat safely and comfortably in her heavy hoop skirts and corset. With this heavier machine and restrictive clothing, the female cyclist could not go very fast or very far. Because it was not acceptable for a lady to venture out alone on a bicycle before the 1890s, tricycling chaperon’s associations were founded to provide the single female with a proper lady cyclist companion. (Ritchie, 151) The tandem or “sociable” was conceived so that the female could essentially be brought along for the ride by her male companion. The larger of these designs featured side by side seating on three or more wheels while others were crafted more like modern tandems with the riders positioned with one in front of the other. One popular designer suggested that “The young lady should always sit in front so that the more powerful male could handle the pedaling. The lady’s part of the bike should be dropped down low enough in front, however, so that the male can see and steer”.(Debate,5) One of the the greatest developments in bicycle ingenuity came in the late 1870’s with the invention of the “Safety Bicycle”. (Hendrick, 1) The Safety Bicycle was named for its relatively safe design compared to the Ordinary which perched the rider on top of a large wheel high in the air, causing frequent “headers”. The Safety established the rear wheel drive and positioned the rider between two equally sized wheels and closer to the ground. It is the principle design still in use today as our typical diamond frame bicycle. For women it meant that they could finally ride the wheel. “The safety bicycle fills a much-needed want for women in any station of life, it knows no class distinction, is within reach of all, and rich and poor alike have the opportunity of enjoying this popular and healthful exercise.” (Zheutlin, Women on Wheels, 2) Another big step in the development of bicycle technology which appeared at about the same time and also contributed to the ability of women to ride was the production of efficient pneumatic tires. These two technological advancements eventually made possible the bicycling boom of the 1890s. (Ritchie, 155)
Women on Bicycles
Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.
—Susan B Anthony. (Strickland, 324)
For women, the initial struggle was for the right to ride a bicycle at all; this debate lasted until the early 1890s. (Ritchie, 147) From the beginning, there was a significant facet of society 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. (Ritchie, 148) 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 were at stake. It was argued that “cycling heats the blood…destroys feminine symmetry and poise” and is “a disturber of internal organs”. (Debate, 2) The perceived frailty of the female organism was a common theme in these arguments and many doctors volunteered their expert advice. Physicians Thomas Lothrop and William Porter argued that the bicycle promoted immodesty in women and would inevitably harm their reproductive systems. (Zheutlin, Women on Wheels, 4) An American doctor suggested that “In young girls the bones of the pelvis are not able to resist the tension required to ride a bicycle, and so may become more or less distorted in shape, with perhaps, in after life, resulting distress”. (Ritchie, 158) Advertisements in newspapers promised to cure the effects of injury to the kidneys, liver, and urinary tract and even went as far as to suggest that a possible side effect of the vibrations from the wheel might eventually lead to death. (Zheutlin, Women on Wheels, 4) Charles Darwin published “The Decent of Man” in 1871 in which his theories of natural evolution downplayed women’s role while encouraging the male obsession with masculinity and physical superiority. Gymnasiums sprang up and men took to bicycling as well as soccer, cricket, boxing, and baseball to stave off the feminizing effects of city life. Many colleges added sports to their curricula and the Olympic Games were re-established in 1896, but all of this was specifically for men. (Dodge, 124) While the warnings of health risks associated with women cyclists was a popular theme, there was at the time equally pointed rebukes such as this piece from the Chicago Daily News:
When woman wants to learn anything or do anything useful or even have any fun there is always someone to solemnly warn her that it is her duty to keep well. Meanwhile in many states she can work in factories ten hours a day, she can stand behind counters in badly ventilated stores from 8 o’clock to 6, she can bend over the sewing machine for about 5 cents an hour and no one cares enough to protest. But when the same women, condemned to sedentary lives indoors, find a cheap and delightful way of getting the fresh air and exercise they need so sorely there is a great hue and cry about their physical welfare. (Zheutlin, Women on Wheels, 4)
The biggest argument against women riding bicycles was the alleged assault on the moral fabric of society that this would foster. Physically speaking, the idea that bicycle riding might be sexually stimulating was a popular concern. It was thought that the combination of straddling the saddle with the pedaling motion would lead to arousal in the female, leading to the habit of masturbation. Special “hygienic” bicycle seats became available, with a recession in the area where a woman’s genitalia would otherwise come into contact with the seat. (Zheutlin, Women on Wheels, 4) This leads to what was perceived to be the most threatening aspect of a population of women on bicycles; it was not women’s health that people worried about, but their morals. The unrefined women of the middle class were deemed to be the most vulnerable to these effects. Through the use of the bicycle women became able to free themselves from the ties of their homes and their jobs and began to experience a new kind of independence. The mere freedom of mobility for a woman was thought by most respectable people to be utterly unacceptable, even immoral.
Cycling women were regarded with a kind of pious horror by society and by the public at large. It was openly said that a woman who mounted a bicycle hopelessly unsexed herself; she was stared at and remarked upon in town. It was supposed that no woman would take so masculine an amusement unless she was fast, unwomanly, and desirous of making herself conspicuous, and accordingly all cycling women had to suffer from the supposition. (Ritchie, 156)
It was feared that female cyclists were a threat to social order and that the unfettered female would bring about the collapse of mannered society. It was the scorn of the public that played the largest role in discouraging women from venturing out alone. Polite society was horrified to witness “unchaperoned women…blithely riding along lonely lanes…a prey to any passing tramp, desperate with hunger and naturally vicious. Their limbs…on display for the world to leer at. Petticoats fluttering brazenly….sleeves drawn back, bosoms unlaced…” and thought, “you see what…bicycles have brought us to—licentiousness and depravity”. (Starrs, 73) Un-chaperoned, a woman might put herself in harms way, being vulnerable to the dangers of attack or her morals might be tested by “being seduced into imprudent conduct with intemperate company”. (Bloomers and Bicycles, 4) While bicycling slowly became more acceptable for women, there was still a strict etiquette attached. Initially women were encouraged to practice the art of the wheel at velocipede schools specifically for them. These were enclosed gymnasiums where gentlemen were excluded and women could wear a bloomer-like dress commonly used for callisthenic exercise. Critics found indoor riding to be more acceptable because it was controlled. Young couples could not ride off in private and there was no risk of immodest exposure of a woman’s limbs. (Victorian Station, Bicycling)
The Bicycle Boom
What enjoyment to a cramped and warped woman’s life is the whirl of the wheel, bringing back as it does God’s gift of health, and the memory of childhood’s delight in out of door activity. With a sense also of rest to the brain, and by raising the thoughts in gratitude alone the household cares and drudgery, it gives a woman for one brief while the chance to rejoice in the feeling of liberty and delight in her own strength.
—Wheelwoman, 1896. (Perry, 160)
By the mid 1890s the great bicycle boom was in full swing. Increased production and a competitive market lowered prices which made it possible for people of all walks of life to participate in the popular past time of the elite who by this time had tired of the bicycle and were beginning to be obsessed by the new motor driven vehicles. It was also during this time when the Wright brothers who owned a bike shop in Dayton Ohio, began to tinker around with bicycle technology to create a flying machine. Consumers were buying bicycles in unprecedented numbers. More than 2,000,000 bicycles were sold in the United States in 1897. Some 3000 American businesses were involved in the bicycle trade. Manufacturers profited greatly from the booming sales and a good bicycle could be had for under $100. (Zheutlin, Women on Wheels, 1) Many organizations sprang up to meet the needs of the cycling masses. “Wheelman’s clubs” were formed with newsletters, receptions, weekly outings and special uniforms. Newspapers were overflowing with special editorials for “wheelmen” and the bicycle paths were teeming with cyclists on the weekends. (Ritchie, 160) The increasing interest in the bicycle from the upper middle class swung the tide of public opinion, and the stigma surrounding the bicycle was finally lifted. More and more women had taken to the “wheel” in the 1890s despite the critical attention they attracted, but by 1895 the popular opinion finally came around. “The sport which had been denounced as injurious to the health and dangerous for delicate women became suddenly the very best way for idle, sensitive women to improve their health”. (Ritchie, 160) Ladies riding clubs became more popular, like the Coventry Lady Cyclists which was founded in 1892, the same year that the Lady Cyclist Association was formed. (Ritchie, 156) In 1894 a new “cyclery” was built in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco with separate amenities for women including sitting rooms, lockers, showers and baths. The facility included several pubs and indoor parking for more than 200 bicycles. (Dodge, 136)
Racing and Record Setting
In olden times the woman rode
As fitted one of subject mind:
Her lord and master sat before,
She on a pillion sat behind.
But now upon her flying wheel
She holds her independent way,
And when she rides a race with man,
‘Tis even chance she wins the day. (Starrs, 71)
Since the days of the Ordinary, feats of strength and endurance fascinated crowds of enthusiasts and reports of record breaking rides were often headlined in the papers. In 1884 Thomas Stevens was the first person to ride around the world, riding 13,500 miles in 32 months. (Zheutlin, Annie Londonderry, 1) Women did race as early as the mid 1880s but the reaction from the cycling press was strongly discouraging. At the end of 1892 Cycling magazine in London published an article condemning women racers:
When a record-breaking craze takes hold of wheel women, we fear the end of the tether is within reach, and female cycling is doomed. There is a prescribed limit beyond which her modesty and deportment should absolutely forbid her to step: and moreover beyond which she becomes an exhibition that excites neither envy in her compeers or admiration in the opposite sex. The record-breaking woman cannot be graceful; the peculiar action of cycle propulsion at high speed will not permit it in her case, and as she poses in scorching attitude, twists her pedals as rapidly as she is able, and in fact centres all her attention and energy towards the attainment of speed, she cannot fail to be other than an abject of ridicule. (Ritchie, 156)
Less than a year later, when a sixteen year old named Debbie Reynolds rode 120 miles from Brighton to London and back in eight and a half hours (while wearing “rational dress”); Cycling wrote her a scathing review. She became a hero and a martyr for the dress reformers and ultimately for the cause of women’s emancipation in general. (Ritchie, 156)
“Six day races” began in the 1880s testing man’s endurances on a bicycle. The six day limit was instituted in observance of the Sabbath. (Zheutlin, Annie Londonderry) These races reached the height of popularity in the mid 1890s and, though with some limitations, women were eventually able to join in the competitions. Women cyclists had separate events and were limited to riding four hours a day, which didn’t stop sixteen year old Monica Harwood from riding 429 miles to win London’s first women’s “six” in 1896. The American women’s champion Frankie Nelson earned the title of the “Queen of the Sixes” after winning the New York women’s “six” in 1895 and 1896. (Dodge, 136)
In June of 1894 an American named Annie Kopchovsky became the first woman to ride around the world. Annie’s ride was the result of a wager between two wealthy clubmen of Boston, that no woman could match Stevens’ ride of a decade before. The bet was for $20,000 to $10,000 (that Annie would fail), which was a huge amount of money as the average yearly salary was about $1,000. The wager was not just a test of physical ability, but of a woman’s capacity to make her own way in the world. Unlike Stevens, Annie had several stipulations which added to the challenge. “The wager required her to start penniless, accept no gratuities, and complete the trip in 15 months. She had to procure the signatures of American consuls in certain foreign cities to prove that she’d been there. And, she had to earn $5,000 above expenses en route. A $10,000 prize awaited her if she succeeded.” Annie assumed the name “Annie Londonderry” as part of a sponsorship from a local spring water company. Then, after a send-off from a crowd of 500 supporters and “packing a pearl handled revolver and a change of underwear” she embarked on her journey. Annie seems like an unlikely candidate and it is unknown how she came to be chosen for this challenge. She was married with three young children, she was Jewish in an anti-Semitic time, she was young (early 20’s), she had no cycling experience and she was not a physically robust person at 5’3” and 100 pounds. (Zheutlin, Annie Londonderry, 1, 2) During the course of Annie’s ride she followed the stages of dress reform: Starting in skirt and blouse, switching to the bloomer and eventually donning men’s pants for much of the trip. “Mrs. Londonderry expressed the opinion that the advent of the bicycle will create a reform in female dress that will be beneficial” read an article in the Omaha World Herald during her stop there in August of 1895. (Zheutlin, Women on Wheels, 3) Annie did “win the day” when she pedaled into Boston in September of 1895 and from then on enjoyed the life of a celebrity, making headlines and appearing in advertisements “for everything from milk to perfume”. (Zheutlin, Annie Londonderry, 4)
Another remarkable story is that of Frances Willard. Willard was a well known woman in her time, a suffragist and founding president of the Women’s Temperance Union, a dynamic political organization which led the struggle for women’s rights. (Dodge, 133) At 53 years old Willard was gifted a bicycle while visiting the head of the British Women’s Temperance Association, Lady Henry Somerset. Willard named the bike “Gladys” and over the period of three months, and with several teachers, she learned to ride. Inspired by the will to show the women in her organization what they were capable of, Willard wrote a book about her experience with “Gladys” called How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle. It was published in 1895, only three years before her death. In her book Willard testifies that “all failure was from a wobbling will rather than a wobbling wheel,” the “will (being) the wheel of the mind”. (Willard, 31)
The bicycle…has been responsible for more movement in manners and morals than anything since Charles the Second. Under its influence, wholly or in part, have wilted chaperones, long and narrow skirts, tight corsets, hair that would come down, black stockings, thick ankles, large hats, prudery and fear of the dark; under its influence, wholly or in part, have blossomed weekends, strong nerves, strong legs, strong language, knickers, knowledge of make and shape, knowledge of woods and pastures, equality of sex, good digestion and professional occupation—in four words, the emancipation of women.
—John Gallsworthy (Debate, 6)
By allowing women the feeling of freedom, mobility and independence, the bicycle helped to fundamentally transform social relations between the sexes. Not only did the bicycle play a large roll in freeing women from the restraints of constricting fashions, it changed the idea of female beauty by dispelling the myths of women’s fragility and helplessness. The early women’s liberation movement found in the bicycle a vehicle for change; as the famous women’s emancipationist Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton proclaimed: “woman is riding to suffrage on a bicycle”. (Dodge, 293) Today, some of mountain bike racing’s biggest stars are women and racers like Missy Giove and Juli Furtado get as much press—and respect as the guys. The fact that women’s racing prize money is significantly less however, and that most bikes today are still designed around a man’s proportions of a longer torso to leg ratio, indicates that we still live in a male dominated society and perhaps we have some distance to ride yet.