Bicycle and the Women’s Suffragette Movement of the 1890s
References The exhibition was described in “The Big Bicycle Show at the Garden,” New
The exhibition was described in “The Big Bicycle Show at the Garden,” New York Sunday World, 19 January 1896, p. 19. Click footnote numbered link to return to article
Irving A. Leonard, When Bikehood was in Flower, (Seven Palms Press, 1983).
“Champion of Her Sex,” New York Sunday World, 2 February 1896, p. 10.
In some cases the larger wheel was the rear wheel.
“A Blessing for Women,” The Bearings, 5 September 1895.
Sarah Gordon in Beauty and Business: Commerce, Gender, and Culture in Modern America, Philip Scranton, Editor (Routledge, 2001), p.25.
“A Whirl ‘Round the World,” Omaha World Herald, 25 August 1895, p. 5.
Item, Arizona Daily Gazette, 16 June 1895.
Sarah Gordon in Beauty and Business: Commerce, Gender, and Culture in Modern America, Philip Scranton, Editor (Routledge, 2001), p. 26.
“Taking Chances,” Iowa State Register, 28 August 1895.
“Woman and Her Bicycle,” Chicago Daily News, 17 October 1894, p. 8.
Quoted in Lynn Sherr, Failure is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words (Times Books, 1995), p. 196.
“The First New Woman,” The Washington Post, 11 August 1895, p. 20.
“Mrs. Stanton Likes Bloomers,” Rocky Mountain News, 11 August 1895.
“Bloomers Abhorred,” Iowa State Register, 7 September 1895.
“They Don’t Like Bloomers,” Chicago Sunday Times-Herald, 8 September 1895.
“They Don’t Like Bloomers,” Chicago Sunday Times-Herald, 8 September 1895.
Omaha World-Herald, 25 August 1895.
San Francisco Chronicle, 1 April 1895.
Robert A. Smith, A Social History of the Bicycle, (McGraw Hill, 1972), p. 76.
Frances Willard, A Wheel Within a Wheel: A Woman’s Quest for Freedom (Applewood Books, 1997). Willard’s essay was originally published in 1895 as “How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle.”
Frances Willard, A Wheel Within a Wheel: A Woman’s Quest for Freedom (Applewood Books, 1997) p. 73.
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The 1890s was the peak of the American bicycle craze and consumers were buying bicycles in large numbers. In 1897 alone, more than two million bicycles were sold in the United States , about one for every 30 inhabitants. Bicycles, or “wheels,” were everywhere in the gay 90s as were “wheelmen’s clubs,” well organized association with newsletters, receptions, weekly outings, uniforms and special meeting rooms. Bicycle paths were clogged with traffic on weekends and newspapers were filled with cycling news and special columns for “wheelmen.” Hundreds of manufacturers were successfully profiting from booming sales and a quality bicycle could be had for under $100. Some 3,000 American businesses were involved, in one way or another, in the bicycle trade, including a bicycle shop in Dayton , Ohio owned by two brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, who were using bicycle technology to tinker with another invention they were working on.
So popular was cycling that by 1896, even Madison Square Garden proved too small to accommodate all those who wanted to display their wares at “The Great Bicycle Exhibition.” Balconies and three tiers of terraces for promenading above the Garden floor were constructed to expand the exhibition space. When the Garden’s electric lights were turned on, the effect, wrote one reporter, “was brilliant.” People in masquerade, human freaks, and other means were employed to attract visitors to the displays. “A Chinaman presides on the platform of a wheel known by its yellow frame. An Indian with his war paint on; a swell; a giant negro; a dime museum midget; a quartet of jubilee singers; a fat boy; young men in racing costume; allegorical figures that suggest the names of standard wheels; [and] a rambling tramp” contributed to the circus-like atmosphere that drew huge crowds to the Garden.
Cycling in the 1890s was nothing less than “a general intoxication, an eruption of exuberance like a seismic tremor that shook the economic and social foundations of society and rattled the windows of its moral outlook.” Nowhere was this more evident than in the role of the bicycle in the changing lives of American women. Indeed, the women’s movement of the 1890s and the cycling craze became so inextricably intertwined that in 1896 Susan B. Anthony told the New York World’s Nellie Bly that bicycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
It wasn’t always easy for women to ride bicycles and it was the evolution of bicycle technology that opened the sport to women and paved the way for women, such as Annie “ Londonderry ” Kopchovsky, to seize the bicycle as a tool of personal and political power. Before the development of chain technology, which allowed a cyclist to transfer pedal power to a bicycle’s rear wheel, bicycle designers increased bicycle speed by increasing the size of the front wheel to which the pedals were attached. The typical Ordinary, as these high-wheelers were known, had front wheels as large as five feet in diameter so the machine would cover more ground with each pedal revolution. It required extraordinary athleticism just to mount an Ordinary, let alone ride one, and accidents were common. Steering was difficult and even a small obstacle, a rut in the road or a large stone, could send the Ordinary rider, mounted many feet above the ground, head first over the front handlebars. Indeed, learning how to “take a header” safely was an essential skill.
In the late 1870s, the first so-called “Safety” bicycles appeared. Safety bicycles had wheels of equal size and a chain drive (though a few models had a chainless “shaft drive”) that transferred power from the pedals to the rear wheel. At first derided by experienced wheelmen as designed for old men and women, the Safety quickly proved the superior design, both faster and more stable than the Ordinary, and remains the basis for bicycle design today.
The Safety, not the Ordinary was, ironically, a bicycle ordinary people, including women, could ride. The Ordinary quickly became obsolete and the Safety bicycle helped usher in the cycling craze of the 1890s. “The safety bicycle fills a much-needed want for women in any station of life,” said The Bearings, a cycling periodical, in October, 1894, “It knows no class distinction, is within reach of all, and rich and poor alike have the opportunity of enjoying this popular and healthful exercise.”
As cycling’s popularity exploded, a new breed of woman was making her mark in the 1890s. “The New Woman” was the term used to describe the modern woman who broke with convention by working outside the home, or eschewed the traditional role of wife and mother, or became politically active in the woman’s suffrage movement or other social issues. The New Woman saw herself as the equal of men and the bicycle helped her assert herself as such.
As women learned to ride bicycles they not only gained physical mobility that broadened their horizons beyond the neighborhoods in which they lived, they discovered a new-found sense of freedom of movement, a freedom previously circumscribed by the cumbersome fashions of the Victorian era as well as by Victorian sensibilities. The restrictive clothing of the era — corsets, long, heavy, multi-layered skirts worn over petticoats or hoop, and long sleeved shirts with high collars — inhibited freedom of movement and seemed to symbolize the constricted lives women of the 1890s were expected to lead. Such clothing was inimical to even modest forms of exercise or exertion. Cycling required a more practical, rational form of dress, and large billowing skirts and corsets started to give way to bloomers — baggy trousers, sometimes called a divided skirt, cinched at the knee. Although bloomers first appeared decades earlier, and a major social battle was waged over their propriety, the cycling craze practically mandated changes in women’s attire for any woman who wanted to ride.
“[C]lothing for sports engaged a wide variety of women in a discussion about their relationship with their garments, “ according to Sarah Gordon. “At a time when mainstream women rarely challenged fashion’s dictates, the novelty of sports offered an opportunity to rethink women’s clothing.”
Annie herself had strong views on the matter. “Miss Londonderry expressed the opinion that the advent of the bicycle will create a reform in female dress that will be beneficial,” reported the Omaha World Herald during Annie’s visit there in August 1895. ”She believes that in the near future all women, whether of high or low degree, will bestride the wheel, except possibly the narrow-minded, long-skirted, lean and lank element.”
But, dress reform was not a simple matter of practical adaptation; it invoked and challenged popular perceptions of femininity and became a hotly contested moral issue. Eventually, the battle over dress reform, largely fought on the battlefield of cycling attire, and the popularity of cycling among women, forever altered public perceptions of female athleticism and proper female behavior. The prim and proper gentility expected of women yielded to acceptance that women, too, could exert themselves on the bicycle sensibly dressed for the activity and not only retain, but even enhance, their femininity. Once hidden under yards of fabric, women cyclists shed their old skins and emerged, quite literally, as “new women.”
In the course of her own journey, both geographic and personal, Annie would run the sartorial gamut as she transformed herself into a new woman: she started in long skirts and a traditional blouse, took to bloomers in Chicago, and would eventually don a man’s riding suit for much of the trip, an evolution that symbolized the larger changes in women’s lives as expressed in the clothing they wore. When Annie was in Phoenix in June of 1895, one elderly woman was so shocked to see Annie in “men’s pants” that she ran horrified into a nearby shop and began muttering about the “depravity and boldness of the nineteenth century girl.” Cycling, and the dress reform that accompanied it, challenged traditional gender norms and “provided a space where women actively contested and rethought femininity,” and there is no better example of the phenomenon than Annie.
That bike riding might be sexually stimulating for women was also a real concern to many in the 1890s. It was thought that straddling a saddle combined with the motion required to propel a bicycle would lead to arousal. So-called “hygienic” saddles began to appear, saddles with little or no padding where a woman’s genitalia would ordinarily make contact with the seat. High stems and upright handlebars, as opposed to the more aggressively positioned “drop” handlebars, also were thought to reduce the risk of female sexual stimulation by reducing the angle at which a woman would be forced to ride.
Some critics warned the bicycle was harmful to a woman’s health and all kinds of arguments were thrown up to try and discourage women from taking to the wheel. The fragility and sensitivity of the female organism was a common theme. An article in the Iowa State Register, typical of the times, warned that exposure during cycling to wet and cold “may suppress or render irregular and fearfully painful the menses, and perhaps sow the seeds for future ill health.” The manufacturers of various “cures” capitalized on fears that cycling could injure the kidneys, liver and urinary tract, some even suggesting that what might begin as a minor side-effect from the vibrations of the wheel could eventually lead to death. Warner’s Safe Cure made these claims in advertisements designed to look like ordinary newspaper articles. In the September 21, 1895 editions of the Chicago Times-Herald and the Kansas City Star, for example, Warner’s Safe Cure didn’t just warn women; men, too, were said to be at risk, and Warner’s was the cure.
But the constant drumbeat of warnings about cycling’s ill effects on women throughout the early 1890s also brought forth pointed rebukes, such as this one in the Chicago Daily News: “When woman wants to learn anything or do anything useful or even have any fun there is always someone to solemnly warn her that it is her duty to keep well. Meanwhile in many states she can work in factories ten hours a day, she can stand behind counters in badly ventilated stores from 8 o’clock to 6, she can bend over the sewing machine for about 5 cents an hour and no one cares enough to protest. But when these same women, condemned to sedentary lives indoors, find a cheap and delightful way of getting the fresh air and exercise they need so sorely there is a great hue and cry about their physical welfare.” Clearly, with the advent of cycling as a recreation for women, the gauntlet over woman’s rights had been thrown down.
For leaders of the woman’s movement, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the battle over women’s dress was a critical part of the battle for sexual equality and even the right to vote. “Why, pray tell me, hasn’t a woman as much right to dress to suit herself as a man?” Anthony asked a reporter in 1895. “[T]he stand she is taking in the matter of dress is no small indication that she has realized that she has an equal right with a man to control her own movements.” Stanton , sometimes referred to as “the first new woman,” also forcefully defended a woman’s right to dress as she pleased, a right asserted in the context of cycling. “Men found that flying coat tails were ungainly and that baggy trousers were in the way [when cycling] so they changed their dress to suit themselves and we didn’t interfere,” Stanton told a reporter in 1895. “They have taken in every reef and sail and appear in skin tight garments. We did not bother our heads about their cycling clothes, and why should they meddle with what we want to wear? We ask nothing more of them than did the devils in Scripture – ‘Let us alone.’”
Despite Stanton’s admonition that men “let us alone” on the question of cycling attire, even the male dominated medical profession weighed in. At the Mississippi Valley Medical Congress in Detroit in September of 1895, cycling was endorsed as healthful exercise for men and women, but the delegates derided bloomers as “something outrageous” and “unanimously declared [bloomers] to be an abomination and the cause of lowering their wearers in the eyes of spectators.” No medical reason was cited.
In Norwich, New York in 1895, a group of young men signed a written pledge promising not to associate with any woman who wore bloomers and to use “all honorable means to render such costumes unpopular in the community where I reside.” Their goal, never realized, was to build their movement into a “national anti-bloomer brigade.” Their effort was courageous, said the Chicago Sunday Times-Herald, tongue-in-cheek, for “[t]he wearers of the bloomers are usually young women who have minds of their own and tongues that know how to talk.” They could have been writing about Annie.
The issue of women’s cycling attire was fodder for cartoonists, as well. A cartoon in the August 25, 1895 edition of the Omaha World Herald, a cartoon published during Annie’s visit to Omaha, is a caricature of Egyptian hieroglyphics and depicts several Egyptian men at the “Rameses Club” watching with bemusement as a woman on a bicycle cycles by in baggy pajama-like trousers. “The New Woman of Ancient Egypt,” says the top caption; “First Appearance of Bloomers on the Streets of Karnak,” reads the bottom caption. Another cartoon, one published during Annie’s visit to San Francisco, depicted a woman whose loose fitting bloomers had been filled with air by the rushing wind, her legs and hindquarters floating above the bike. But for her grip on the handlebars she’d have sailed away. “Her bloomers were too loose,” read the caption, implying that the woman, too, might be loose.
The social changes wrought by the bicycle were hardly limited to women’s fashion. A woman with a bicycle no longer had to depend on a man for transportation and she was free to come and go at will. She experienced a new kind of physical thrill made possible by the speed of the bike. The bicycle imparted a parity with men that was both new and heady. In short, “more and more women came to regard the cycle as a freedom machine.”
Indeed, mastery of the bicycle as a metaphor for women’s mastery over their own lives was the message of Frances Willard’s 1895 book A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle. Willard was one of the most famous women of her day, a leading suffragist and founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union which had a mass following of independent-minded, often politically active, women. At age 53, Willard resolved to learn to ride a bicycle because, as she wrote, she “wanted to help women to a wider world…from natural love of adventure – a love long hampered and impeded…[and] from a love of acquiring this new implement of power and literally putting it underfoot.” (Emphasis added.) And as she did, so did millions of other women. America would never be the same.