Bicycles and Women’s Emancipation

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.”

Susan B. Anthony, 1896

For a little fun today, let’s look at something simple that made a big impact of the freedom of women – the bicycle! By the 1890s, bicycling had become very popular in the United States as well as in Europe, and women weren’t going to be left out of the fun. Bicycles allowed women more freedom of movement out of their own neighborhoods and into the world at large. They could go farther in less time and it was much cheaper to maintain than a horse!

Susan B. Anthony said in an interview with the New York World in 1896, that the bicycle “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” Francis Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, even wrote a book about how she learned to ride a bicycle later in life.

But, for a woman to be truly comfortable on a bicycle, not to mention safe, their clothing needed to be modified. In the 1970s when bell-bottoms became popular, we used to put rubber bands around our ankles to keep our pants legs from getting tangled up in the gears. I can’t imagine trying to ride with long skirts.

“Her miserable style of dress is a consequence of her present vassalage not its cause. Woman must become ennobled, in the quality of her being. When she is so, . . . she will be able, unquestioned, to dictate the style of her dress.”  Lucy Stone

So in the 1890s, “Bloomers”, or Turkish trousers, which had come and gone from fashion in the 1850s, made a comeback. This was an outfit that included full trousers gathered at the ankle with a short dress over them. (Although not developed by Amelia Bloomer, she advocated them in her magazine The Lily.)

Around the same time there was a movement toward more rational dress for women, due in part to the unhealthy nature (not to mention extreme discomfort) of corsets. Bloomers were soon displaced by an even more “radical” getup – rationals.

“Woman will never hold her true position, until, by a firm muscle and a steady nerve, she can maintain the RIGHTS she claims . . . but she cannot make the first move . . . until she casts away her swaddling clothes.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Were increased freedom of women on bicycles and the corresponding change in dress in part responsible for a move toward women’s liberation, or were they the result of it? It’s an interesting question, but there will always be those who, even when they accept a new found freedom will try to control it. Women were cautioned not to develop the “bicycle face” and warned that their vocal chords were changing because of bicycle riding, making women loud talkers with harsh voices.  Check out this long list of don’t’s for women cyclists at, including such things as the following:

“Don’t chew gum. Exercise your jaws in private.”

“Don’t try to ride in your brother’s clothes ‘to see how it feels.’”

“Don’t scream if you meet a cow. If she sees you first, she will run.”

Sigh. . . Enjoy your freedom ladies. It was hard fought for and not every woman in the world has the same freedoms today. The fight isn’t over!

A Few Great Resources About Women’s History

I’ve recently “Liked” some new Facebook pages related to History, some specifically about Women’s History, and through these have discovered some wonderful resources that I want to highlight.

Is Mise – on Facebook

Is Mise is a Facebook page “By, For, and About Women” managed by Tracy Livingston a cultural anthropologist. She has wonderful posts and I highly recommend “liking” her page if you are on Facebook.

Century of Action: Women Get the Vote

One of the websites I found through Is Mise is the “Century of Action: Women Get the Vote“, the website of the Oregon Women’s History Consortium.

When the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1920, many women had been voting for quite a while. Fifteen states had given women full suffrage and others had received the right to vote in various types of elections. One hundred years ago, in 1912, the women of Oregon won the right to vote. In honor of this event, the Oregon Women’s History Consortium has been formed to “lead the centennial celebration of woman suffrage and to promote women’s history beyond 2012.” At their website you can find information about the long fight in Oregon, the women who spear-headed that fight, documents, and current news and events.

Homefront Heroines: The WAVES of World War II

During WWII, women did countless jobs to free men to fight. We often think about Rosy the Riveter and women who went into the workforce for the first time, but women also went into the military for the first time in jobs other than nursing. Homefront Heroines: The WAVES of World War II is a documentary film about the women who volunteered for service in the Navy during the war. At the website and blog for the film, you can find wonderful exhibits, pictures, and stories of these women as well as a trailer for the movie to be released in August 2012. They have both a Facebook page and a website.

The Zinn Education Project

If you’ve never read Howard Zinn’s book A People’s History of the United States, it is well worth the time. In the book, Zinn looks at our history from a different perspective than the typical history book and tells the stories of people whose voices are often not heard. The Zinn Education Project is primarily targeted toward using Zinn’s book in the classroom, but it’s website contains many resources which will be of interest to anyone interested in United States history. You can explore by theme or time period and narrow the target audience to a specific age group. This site is not limited to women’s history, but we are certainly represented there. They also have a Facebook page.

National Women’s History Museum

I’ve mentioned the National Women’s History Museum before, but I wanted to remind you of it. If you are on Facebook, be sure to “Like” their page. They frequently have posts of the “Today in History” type specifically related to women.

Just a little nugget from this week – During the Revolutionary War, Thursday April 26, 1777 was the day that Sybil Ludington rode all night on horseback to warn local troops that the British were attacking. Her father was a colonel in the militia and she was barely sixteen, but she rode all night covering roughly 40 miles. She accomplished her mission and the men gathered together the next morning to fight. Paul Revere covered less distance and was memorialized in a poem, but Sybil was just a girl helping out her dad.

Actually, there are a couple of statues of Sybil and she has her own stamp, but I had never heard of her. There are so many things we weren’t taught in school!

National Women’s History Museum

“If society will not admit of woman’s free development, then society must be remodeled.”

Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910),
the first U.S. female medical doctor

From time to time, beginning with Christine de Pizan in 1405, women’s history has been researched and written about, then lost. The National Women’s History Museum is hoping to change that. Currently, it exists only on line, but the effort is being made now to establish a brick and mortar museum in Washington, DC. The funds are being raised privately, but the location must be approved by Congress. Meryl Streep has thrown her support to the cause both financially and by participating in fundraising efforts.

I wasn’t aware of the project or the online museum until today, but I like what I see. Some of the exhibits include

  • First But Not Last: Women Who Ran For President
  • Clandestine Women: Spies in American History
  • Latinas in the New World
  • Chinese American Women: A History of Resilence and Resistance
  • Claiming Their Citizenship: African American Women From 1624 – 2009
  • Profiles in Motherhood

There is even an exhibit researched and written by teenagers with Girls Learn International, Inc. It highlights young women who are worthy role models. I admit I have only heard of 6 of the 30 young women listed. That’s actually embarrassing, but probably not surprising.

History is typically taught from an event perspective, or what I would call a top down approach with everything revolving around world wars, presidents, discovery of America, etc. There is really far too much valuable information to squeeze into the curriculum as it is. And of course, history keeps happening. Creative teachers find ways to inject additional information into the curriculum, but they might not even know about many of the women mentioned here. (Keep in mind, I was a math/science teacher not a history teacher.)

I think this resource could be very valuable to teachers and parents alike who want their students/children to have a more balanced perspective on history and women’s contributions to it. After all, we are half of the population and have made great contributions throughout history whether they have been highlighted or not.

For example, I knew about Victoria Woodhull, who announced her candidacy for president in 1870. Unfortunately for her, she wasn’t even old enough to take office and was actually in jail on election day. But I had never heard of Belva Lockwood (shown on the left) who ran for president on the National Equal Rights Party ticket in 1884. She was a lawyer who won the right for women to argue cases before the US Supreme Court. Only receiving 4000 votes, she wasn’t discouraged and ran again in 1888. Remember in 1884 women couldn’t even vote in most of the US. The 19th amendment allowing all US women citizens to vote wouldn’t happen until 1920.

There is a lot to learn at this site and I’m sure more is coming. Check it out. I bet you’ll like what you see. Let me know what you think and what you learned from it.