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The Wheels Of Revolution: How The Bicycle Changed Women's Lives

The importance of the bicycle in the lives of women cannot be overstated

She's riding a bubble gum pink beach cruiser the size of a Plymouth on the shoulder of a busy road. I'm running interference on my bike, riding slightly behind and slightly to the right of my teenage daughter as sort of a human buffer, lest she be bothered by two tons of speeding metal to my left.

Knowing how to ride a bike in traffic is, to my mind, a necessary precursor to knowing how to drive in traffic when the time comes. There are rules. You must follow them, or bad things could happen.

These little excursions of ours out into the world beyond our tree lined neighborhood streets are a step, a step toward further independence, because once you can ride safely in traffic, the only thing keeping you from practically unlimited exploration is the strength of your legs.

That wasn't always the case, however. Not for women, anyway. And not before the invention of the bicycle.

"Let me tell you what I think of bicycling," Susan B. Anthony once said. "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."

* * * * *

The Victorian Era was not particularly kind to women, what with the corsets and hoop skirts and petticoats and all that worry about ankle flesh showing. Victorian men were also none too keen on all that bother with equal rights or women going all the way outside the house for too long.

Women's clothing — the corset, the long, heavy skirts, the gloves, the petticoats —was symbolic of their constricted and heavily controlled lives. Women were not encouraged to move around and their clothes poignantly mirrored the societal limitations on their involvement in education, work or politics. That was for the men folk.

At the end of the 19th century, however, bicycle riding was beginning to flourish with the popularity of the "penny farthing,'' or the "ordinary.'' These behemoths were bicycles with one giant, direct-drive wheel, with a smaller rear wheel, sort of like a tricycle that's missing a wheel. They popularized the sport of bicycle riding among men. But the ordinary could have a front wheel with a circumference of as much as 5 feet, effectively barring women riders by design. What woman in a hoop skirt could mount a bike five feet in the air?

For about 20 years, women sat out the bicycle wave sweeping the country.

But the invention of the "safety bicycle" broke up that all-boys club. Scoffed at by "ordinary'' riders as bicycles for old men and women, the safety bicycle had two equally sized wheels and a chain drive.

Today, we call this design by a simpler name: "bicycle.'' The design has changed little in close to 150 years.

* * * * *

The safety bicycle was revolutionary.  Simple, efficient, affordable, human-powered machinery that could carry a person farther in a shorter time than feet alone could. It was class-blind and gender-agnostic.

This, of course, caused great consternation among the men folk, who were not keen on change. Lawmakers, doctors and busybodies of all stripes fell over each other to line up on the wrong side of history, railing against the decline in moral fiber posed by women on bikes, not to mention the ill effects on women's health and all manner of hogwash that scared little people spew when staring into the business end of democracy.

The backlash was rooted in the fear that women might actually get out of the house where they might talk to other people or, gasp!, other women. They could, perish the thought, start getting ideas. Then what? Anarchy, blast it, anarchy!

Women who rode were sniped at and talked about, their morality and their sexual orientation were called into question, often quite publicly. Cycling women were labeled loose, unwomanly, possibly lesbian.

But millions of safety bicycles were sold during the U.S. bicycle boom of the 1890s and thousands of companies were dedicated to the bicycle trade. The hoop skirt slowly faded away, while the Bloomer — strange, bifurcated clothing roughly akin to trousers — became the preferred bicycle garb for women.

The bicycle was a vehicle for change, forcing an unprecedented change in women's clothing, attitudes and empowerment. And those in the early women's liberation movement were among the first to recognize the revolutionary power of the simple machine.

"Woman is riding to suffrage on a bicycle,'' famous suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton once said.

* * * * *

And then there's my teenager, riding bravely, albeit stiffly, down the boulevard on her pink cruiser, trying to watch for cars in her mirror while pedaling a straight line.

She couldn't possibly know what the women who came before her endured so she could ride like it was no big deal. Because it is no big deal, and those women knew it. It's just riding a bike.

And because it was, because it was a big deal, and they knew that, too. It wasn't just riding a bike. It was the freedom to choose to ride a bike.

And there she goes, my daughter, carrying the ghosts of all those who came before her, riding to her own freedom.


* * * * * 

For more on the bicycle's important role in the lives of women, please see:

Judy Bendar July 29, 2012 at 03:58 PM
Great read, Keith!

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