Women’s History Month: The Right to Ride a Bike

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I remember taking a class on women’s history in the U.S. during my senior year in college and being so completely blown away by women’s involvement in everything from arts to science, design, sports, government, civil rights, fashion, and pretty much everything. It was kind of ridiculous that women’s involvement in history was not taught early in my school years, and that I had to take a special class in college to get a proper understanding of it, but at least I did.

One of the units in this class that I remember being the most interested in was about women and bicycles. In the late 1890s women were not allowed to ride bicycles, and it caused quite a stir to say the least. Bicycles were still fairly new at the time and the original models were not safe for anyone, men or women. But as designs changed and became more sophisticated, bike riding was the new fad to sweep the nation and everyone was doing it. Except women.

“…conservatives feared that cycling would compromise women’s femininity, damage their reproductive health, or even corrupt their morals…”

It was one Elizabeth Cady Stanton who foresaw a bicycle as much more than just transportation: it was a social revolution for women. She was a huge proponent of women’s rights to ride bicycles and was, as we now know her to have been time and again, way ahead of her time when it came to advocating for equal rights.

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Even more interesting than the social objections, doctors were also against it and claimed with little proof that bicycling was unhealthy for women. They went so far as to say that cycling would require more energy than women were capable of possessing, energy better spent focusing on rearing their children and having more. There were physicians saying it was perfectly safe and healthy for women to ride bicycles, but the majority of them were going with the public opinion that it was not, and were referring to “deformities” that could occur, like gaining muscle in the legs (!).

The worries about women’s compromised femininity were also starting to fall on deaf ears as time went on: how could it be compromised any more than it would be from horseback riding? Then there is also the fact that women who were allowed to ride bicycles now had an actual means of escape from the house, their husbands, their children, societal expectations, etc. Sounds exciting 🙂

Even though it is somewhat laughable today that women once had to fight for the right to ride bicycles, it is of course, not about the bicycle. It is about the equal rights of the person riding it.

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Quoted material from the article my professor shared with the class, and here’s another good one about women and bicycles from the Atlantic.

 

 

images via google and pinterest

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