Early American Bicycles Gave Us Suffragettes and Weird Facial Expressions

Women's Bike History

“Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
— Susan B. Anthony

Bikes in cities are like the horses of the Wild West. They can release us from traffic snarls, free us from El platforms and unshackle us from Chicago’s parking meter system. Did you know that cycling was even more of a liberating force in the women’s rights movement? Me neither! As it turns out, a practical mode of transportation was just what independent-minded ladies needed in the 1800s to expand their limited physical and social horizons.

Biking was already a popular pastime for men. Then women figured out that it provided an escape from some of the constraints that kept them in place. As bike historian Leah Missbach Day put it, “The bicycle craze of the 1890s brought about the relaxation of social traditions, allowing women to break out of the confines of their homes and socialize with men.” Not to mention the scandalous ankle-revealing outfits they wore in the process.

Thanks to a women’s bike history series on the League of American Bicyclists website, anyone can read about the pioneers at the forefront of the movement. What’s clear on the site is that all kinds of boundaries were being challenged at once. It started when women began ditching their corsets in order to climb over the low-slung frames of the first pneumatic bicycles. The trend led Amelia Bloomer to popularize a new style of pants that gathered at the ankles. The cycling-while-female phenomenon gained momentum internationally near the turn of the century. In 1895, biking enabled biracial seamstress Katie Knox to challenge both gender and color barriers. Around the same time, Annie Kopchovsky successfully circled the globe by bike on a bet. (She reportedly collected her $10,000 prize in Chicago. Woot woot)

The “new woman” of the 20th century had arrived. Unshockingly, not to everyone’s pleasure.

To opponents of women’s rights, the activity symbolized the dangers that could ensue if female roles were to erode. And what better way to stifle progress than to concoct a female-centric malady known as “bicycle face,” which I assume resembles the expression I made the other day when I almost rode over a flattened rat. On the plus side, a cyclist was less likely to become a “feeble mother” and could even join the growing crop of female athletes.

The 1895 guide Bicycling for Ladies was surprisingly enlightened, however. It aimed to empower women by teaching them to master their machines. There were still some confusing bits of advice, like to “expect ridicule and little sympathy if they essay feats they should not attempt.” (Um, OK?) They could save face by avoiding “jerky movements” and learning not to fall off. But the thorough “Women and Tools” chapter is a reminder that there weren’t loads of bike shops around. These badasses knew their way around a toolbox better than I ever will.

I’m fairly obsessed with my independence. Single and self-employed, I also enjoy an abundance of it. I can’t imagine what biking meant to women in the days before Title IX and—oh, yeah—the vote. Let’s give thanks to our fore-sisters who just wanted a break from their prying chaperones in outfits that didn’t drag all over the damn ground.

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Clare Curley writes about biking, business, being a broad and other stuff that piques her curiosity.

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