by the mag @ mental_floss magazine - May 15, 2008 - 7:58 AM
This is the most delightful line in an article about how the bicycle help speed women's liberation in the United States. Apparently the sight of inappropriate, uppity, bike riding wenches drove some of the locals crazy.
Can you imagine riding your bike to the store and having strangers throw things at you. Well, at least the ladies had to worry about it. The working women were allowed a greater range of activities.
Susan and her fellow 19th-century women had been severely trammeled their entire lives. Forget the glass ceiling; women in those days were trapped under the glass floor. Battles like “equal pay for equal work” were decades away. The Victorian woman’s cause was more along the lines of, “We’d like to leave the house, sometimes … please … if it isn’t too much trouble.”
The fashion for women at that time tended toward helplessness and frailty. Consider the image of a Victorian lady: She’s sickly and pale, relies on men for everything, and occasionally peeks out from behind an ornamental fan (usually before touching her wrist to her forehead and fainting). The frailty of a “lady” was such that preventing females from studying, working, voting and doing much of anything at all seemed a rational measure.
Obviously, there must have been some inclination that at least part of this frailty was socially projected. A gentleman taking a trip to the market must have come across dozens of hardworking women from the lower classes. In fact, he may have employed one such woman to support the proper ladies at his home while they gossiped, blushed and passed out. But men didn’t see those hardworking females as proper ladies. A proper lady was seen as weak, defenseless and entirely dependent on men.
By the late 1880s, the bicycle’s popularity really took off. For instance, in 1880, a group of early cycling advocates called the League of American Wheelmen had a membership of 40; by 1898, its ranks had bloated to nearly 200,000. Cycling was so popular that in 1896 The New York Journal of Commerce estimated bicycling was costing theaters, restaurants and other businesses over 100 million dollars per year. Considering the way the bicycle was exploding in popularity, it was only natural that women should get in on the act.
Before bicycles came along, the horse was the best means of individual travel. Of course, women’s access to horses was limited. Horses were dangerous and difficult to control; conventional medical wisdom suggested that riding them could damage a woman’s genitals. Women were supposed to ride sidesaddle, with both legs hanging off one side. In that unnatural position, women were unable to ride for long distances, reinforcing the idea that they shouldn’t be riding at all.
Bicycles, by comparison, were easy to manipulate. There was no reason a woman couldn’t get on a bike and sedately pedal farther from her home than she’d ever been before. No reason, that is, other than her cumbersome attire and the convention that if she did so, she’d either have her virtue corrupted or die of exhaustion.
The bicycle inspired a fashion revolution when it first came out. Today, bicycles inspire other social protest actions.
The bicycle continues to endear itself to free thinkers. Even today, it’s the centerpiece of many reform movements. Jacquie Phelan (pictured, I saw her race in events on TV), for instance, is a feminist mountain biker who founded WOMBATS, the Women’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society. A three-time world champion voted one of the 10 best mountain bikers of all time, Phelan is a tireless warrior in the fight for equality. She advocates two prices for bikes based on the 59 cents women make to every dollar earned by a man. (She was inspired to take action when she finished sixth in a race and was mistakenly given the $400 dollar men’s prize instead of the $42 allotted to the female finisher.)
As the bicycle continues to lend itself to causes of all kinds, it is important to remember its first battle. Liberating is a word easily associated with cycling. Flying down a tree-lined road with the wind in your face is certainly a liberating experience, but for early female cyclists, a simple bike ride was liberating in a much more significant way.
We promote the bicycle for everyday use because we see bicycling as a central solution to the environmental, health, and social problems facing our planet.
As the world becomes more aware of the climate problems caused by pollution from the transportation sector, the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition points to bicycling as a very clean and healthy transportation solution.
Yesterday, I volunteered as a greeter at The Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, Bike to Work Day Bike Away from Work Bash event at Gordon Biersch in downtown San Jose. Most of the volunteers and organizers were women. Over a century later, the bicycle is still inspiring women for social causes.