The History of Women's Cycling

 


 

My wife has a new road bike just in time for her cycling holiday. Actually, it’s second-hand but it’s a significant step up from the old clunker she’s been crashing around on for years. She has even taken to wearing lycra. Now the sun is out, she can be seen riding along the lanes where we live with her customary panache. The cycling gender gap in our family finally seems to be closing, as it is everywhere.

By Rob Penn

Tuesday 23rd January 2018

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It’s a surprise to some that such a gap even exists. Cycling was, after all, the first popular athletic pursuit for women at the end of the 19th century. Arguably the greatest impact the bicycle had during the golden age in the 1890s, was in breaking down hitherto rigid gender barriers.

I have been re-reading The Wheels of Chance, published in 1896 and written by H.G. Wells, described by one biographer as the ‘writer laureate of cyclists’. The protagonist, a draper’s assistant called Hoopdriver, goes on a cycling holiday and meets a young woman who has left home to flaunt ‘her freedom – on a bicycle, in country places.’ Wells satirises the British class structure and shows how the bicycle was eroding the division between genders. On the road, Hoopdriver and the lady are equals. The dress, clubs, codes, manners and morals that society had put in place to secure the existing hierarchy simply didn’t exist, cycling down a country lane in Sussex.

The novelist, John Galsworthy wrote: ‘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 blossomed… equality of sex, good digestion and professional occupation – in four words, the emancipation of women.’

The bicycle coincided with rather than instigated the feminist movement. It was, nonetheless, a pivotal battleground in the long war for women’s suffrage. Bicycle manufacturers had been making ladies models since the earliest prototype bicycle in 1817, but the popularisation of the safety bicycle in 1885 changed everything. By 1893, nearly every manufacturer was producing a ladies’ model.

In September 1893, Tessie Reynolds caused a national sensation when she rode from Brighton to London and back on a man’s bicycle, wearing ‘rational dress’ – a long jacket over a pair of baggy pantaloons cropped below the knee. It was a turning point in the acceptance of practical clothes for women, most of whom at that time cycled in skirts, corsets, petticoats and jackets with tight neckbands. Later, when the Suffragettes campaign of civil disobedience reached its height in 1912, the incident was seen as a milestone.

In June 1894, Annie Londonderry set off from Boston, USA, with some spare clothes and a pearl-handled revolver, to cycle round the world. Clever and charismatic, she self-consciously took up the mantle of women’s equality. She was a paragon of ‘New Woman’, an American term for the modern woman who behaved like the equal of men. The bicycle, dubbed the ‘freedom machine’ by historian Robert A. Smith, mandated ‘New Woman’.

‘The stand she is taking in the matters of dress is no small indication that she has realised that she has an equal right with a man to control her own movements,’ Susan B. Anthony, the leading American suffragette of her day said in an interview in a New York newspaper in 1896: ‘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 a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance…  the moment she takes her seat, she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood.’

I couldn’t describe my wife on her bicycle any better.

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