The Freedom Machine

1897 ad, showing unskirted garment for women's bicycle riding

Welcome to Biking as a Feminist Act, part 2. Today we will be exploring the history of the bicycle as it is related to Women’s liberation and suffrage and transforming standards of dress. Momentum has a great article on subject with nice historical anecdotes.Women riding bicycles in the 1890’s challenged the social construction of feminine identity by shattering the image of women as frail and confined to the domestic sphere:

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…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 mere freedom of mobility for a woman was thought by most respectable people to be utterly unacceptable, even immoral.

Mobility to travel around the city unchaperoned on a bicycle offered women an opportunity to tap into their strength and independence, threatening the gender assumptions of the time. Concurrently in history, women’s suffrage was on the rise. Women organized meetings and conventions, raising awareness about women’s equality and the need to participate in civic action. The bicycle supported the underlying message of the suffrage activists. Some of the most historically famous suffragists, including Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton loved bicycles and weren’t shy about it. Stanton once declared, “Woman is riding to suffrage on a bicycle.”

Not only did the bicycle aid in the liberation of women in the political realm, but it also liberated them from uncomfortable and inconvenient fashions of the day. It is very difficult to ride a bike in a corset and long skirt that gets caught in the chain. (I know about the whole long skirt thing…ruins the skirt too!) Practical dress for women was also an important step to removing women from the fragile pedestal they were placed on in the Victorian era.

Fast forward to present day and there are times when we still see some of these same issues lingering in our current society. Sure women do have the right to vote, but are still underrepresented in our political system, especially women of color. And yeah, women can wear pants now, but I don’t think we can really claim stilettos as practical dress. There are still times, when women are questioned for riding their bikes alone or at night.

The bicycle still has a lot teach us about freedom and mobility and offerings to us. I plan on doing more research into the history of the bicycle and its culture from a feminist perspective, so there may be more to come on this subject. Look forward to learning more about the economics out bike riding.

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