Women's History Month: Women in Cycling

Women's History Month: Women in Cycling

March 25, 2021

 

There are stories to be told about women and minorities that have, in the past, been left out or glossed over in the narrative of history. In light of this we thought it appropriate that, during Women’s History Month, we as a passionate ebike company should uncover and familiarize ourselves with some of the lesser known women of history that have used the bicycle and their love for cycling to influence the world. Famed suffragette Susan B. Anthony herself said the following of cycling:

 

“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 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.”

 

We will begin, however, by quickly covering the emergence of the contraption called a “bicycle” and note how the bicycle as an object first influenced women, their freedoms, and the how they saw themselves in society, before moving on to the women who have influenced the world and the world of bicycles.

 

A Brief History of the Bicycle

Cycling has a rich history beginning with four and three wheeled contraptions before the high wheeler, also known as the penny-farthing, became the first human powered mode of transport to be called a “bicycle” in the latter part of the 19th Century.

 

During the high times of the high wheeler riding these contraptions was considered something only men did, and it was very, very rare to see a woman perched atop a penny-farthing. This was put down to many factors including the clothing women wore, the dangers of falling off, and societal standards dictating that women stay in the domestic sphere. This was all about to change with one invention that will seem very familiar today. An invention called the safety bicycle.

 

The “Bicycle Craze” and the Empowerment of Women

The safety bicycle was first invented in the 1870’s but didn’t really catch on until additions and upgrades, such as gearing and direct steering, were added in the 1880’s. The safety bicycle is very similar to the standard shape and size of bikes we use today, and was so named because there was nowhere near the same danger of falling off it as there was when riding a penny-farthing.

 

Before the invention of the safety bicycle men were “in charge” of the bike or mode of transport during a social occasion, under the pretense that they were keeping the woman safe. A woman was to be escorted and was rarely allowed to escort herself.

 

The safety bicycle changed all of this. The danger of a perilous fall was now rendered null and void as an excuse for women not to ride a bicycle and, alongside this, safety bicycles incorporated a drop bar, now more commonly known as a step through, which somewhat removed the difficulty of riding a bicycle whilst wearing the outfits of the day; specifically the floor length skirts.

 

The bicycle craze erupted during the late 19th Century as this mode of transportation grew in affordability and popularity. Doctors at the time were also encouraging people to exercise for their health and bicycling was a method suggested by many doctors. With all this comes a sharp rise in the amount of women riding bicycles for the first time.

 

The safety bicycle gave women an autonomy and freedom which society had previously only reserved for men. Of course there were arguments made against this increased autonomy and freedom for women, with many of the arguments focusing on the act of riding a bicycle itself; ranging from the perception that women are inherently weaker than men, to the suggestion that the phallic nature of a bike’s saddle and the seating position itself may result in sexual pleasure for women whilst riding. It is safe to say that neither of these reasons were true, nor did they stop women from getting on with mastering the riding of bicycles.

 

All of this allowed women to, somewhat, release themselves from the confines of the domestic sphere and this changed their domestic and private lives for the better. The modern bicycle allowed them the freedom to get out more and to travel further, whilst also enabling further involvement in their communities and local movements.

 

On top of this boom in cycling came a change in the fashion of the day. Tight bodices and floor length skirts were the fashion but these clothes were not at all fit for the physical activity of riding a bicycle. Divided skirts, skirts which rose on a drawstring, and bicycle corsets all became more commonplace, as did bloomers.

 

Amelia Bloomer

A contemporary of Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Bloomer was the woman who popularized bloomers as clothing to be worn whilst cycling. She did this so well that the garment was named after her, even though she didn’t invent it.

 

Bloomers were considered unsuitable dress for women at the time, yet they were so well suited to riding the bicycles of the time that many women took a stand and wore them anyway. Amelia was a big facilitator of this movement, writing about bloomers in her newspaper, The Lily, and making women’s dress reform a cornerstone of her advocacy for women’s rights.

 

Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky

In 1894, well into the bicycle boom of the 1890s, a bet was tabled by a gentleman stating that a woman could not cycle solo around the world; a feat only accomplished by a man 9 years previous. This bet was taken up by another gentleman and the terms were settled on: she must begin penniless, earn more than $5000 en route, and do it all in less than 15 months.

 

We don’t know how Annie, a petite, Jewish immigrant with 3 children under the age of 6, became the woman tasked with this daunting challenge but she was; and she took to it like a fish to water.

 

She turned the ideals of the time upside down, abandoning her role as a wife and mother and setting out into the world on her own, wearing both bloomers and men’s suits on her travels. Before she’d even set off she made a $100 agreement with Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company that she would carry a sign of their and change her last name to Londonderry for the duration of her trip.

 

She made money selling advertising space on herself and her bike, and by giving talks and selling photographs of herself and her bike. Although she may have elaborated the stories she told along her way, and caught trains and boats when she could have cycled (there were no rules about how far she actually had to cycle on this trip) it all worked in her favor and she cycled back into Chicago to collect $10,000 in winnings just 14 days shy of the allotted 15 month time limit. 12 days later she was back in Boston with her family.

 

Kittie Knox

Kittie was an avid, bi-racial cyclist who was only 21 when she put her foot down and became a part of bicycling’s history. Kittie was card-carrying member of the League of American Wheelmen who, during their annual meeting in 1894, decided to vote on passing a color bar, excluding anyone other than whites from being a member of the league.

 

Kittie had been a member since 1893 and seems to not have been present at the aforementioned meeting. Come the annual meeting of the Company in 1895 and Kittie joined thousands of cyclists in the Asbury Park hotel district in order to attend. She had the support of her Boston cycling companions and her appearance at the meeting was mentioned and, as expected, sensationalized in many ways by many local and national papers.

 

We do not know if she was turned away at the door or allowed into the meeting but Kittie’s defiant appearance at the meeting in 1895 sparked a public debate about the color bar and ensured that her strong stance would not go forgotten in the annals of bicycling history.

 

Maria Ward

During the bicycle craze of the 1890’s Maria Ward published a book called “Bicycling for Ladies”. It was Maria’s firm belief that, despite all the pushback from men, “any woman who is able to use a needle or scissors can use other tools equally well.” Her book covered everything from choosing a bike, to riding etiquette, and included the mechanical elements of a bike and how to fix a bike.

 

Her book included the basics of physics needed to grasp the mechanics of a bike and she spent a lot of her time actually teaching women the importance of looking after their bikes and how to do so. Maria Ward realized that bicycles were giving women freedoms they’d never had before and wanted to further remove women’s dependence on men by giving them the means and the knowledge to fix their own bikes rather than relying on mechanics, who were always men, to fix them.

 

Maria was a well schooled woman in the world of bikes and one of her more famous quotes is one we should all keep in mind: ”Many a weary hour would be spared were a little proper attention given at the right time to your machine.” If you’re interested in her book then the whole text is  available online for free!

 

This List is Not Finite!

There’re many women, past and present, who have had an impact on cycling and the world which revolves around it. Those mentioned above were pioneers in the new and exciting world of bicycling for women at a time when the bicycle was revolutionizing society and the way women lived their lives. If you’re interested in reading more about the women who have impacted the world of bicycling in America The League of American Bicyclists has an excellent page devoted to these amazing women and you can find it right here!

 

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