Though bicycles had been around since the early 19th century they were regarded as purely masculine methods of transport and leisure.
At this time women were very much restricted in how and where they could move through the world. This was particularly true for middle and upper-class women whose lives were far more constrained and curtailed by the need to observe the behavioural codes peculiar to their society.
Women were expected to remain within the confines of indoor spaces and when they did venture outside were chaperoned and supervised, their movements, conversation and opinions carefully scrutinized.
However, things were beginning to change. The production of the “Safety Bicycle” in the 1880s meant that bicycles were safe for children to ride and if children could ride them why not women?
Bicycles offered women the freedom to travel around independently and without supervision and this led to further gains in emancipation. Restrictive long, cumbersome dresses and skirts were not suitable for bicycle riding and were replaced by “bicycle bloomers” (Think bike shorts but with baggy legs).
These gains in freedom for women did not go uncensored. Doctors wrote in medical journals of the dangers of young women riding astride bicycles over bumpy ground. The press of the time warned that a newly emerging condition known as “bicycle face” was certain to destroy the fresh-faced beauty of ladies unaccustomed to screwing their faces up in determination and concentration.
But these bicycling pioneers pedalled on.
The bicycle was adopted as a symbol of growing freedom by the suffragist movement. In 1896 the American women’s rights activist wrote that the bicycle “has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world”.
So next time you get on your bike give a nod to your sisters in history who took those first wobbly rides towards freedom.