The Bicycle: Part 2 – Chains that Set Women Free

“She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life”. ― Susan B. Anthony

“I think [bicycling] 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.” ― Susan B. Anthony

In this article, I am going to talk about the history of women’s rights movements and how the bicycle became a symbol of women’s emancipation especially during the 1890s.

In many parts of the world, women are still not socially emancipated. One of the aims of so-called Third Wave “intersectional” Feminism is to fight for the rights of women of all ethnicities:

  • Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that forbids women, even foreign women, from driving.
  • Iranian feminist Masih Alinejad said recently, “From seven-year-old schoolgirls to 70-year-old grandmothers, women in Iran are all forced to wear the hijab,”.
  • The capital of Indonesia’s Aceh province has imposed a partial curfew for women that it claims will reduce sexual violence (which raises the question, why not impose a curfew for the men who do the raping?).

Such attitudes may now seem unfamiliar to us in countries where women’s rights have been championed and gradually improved for the past century. Some people may think these attitudes exemplify the ideals of a Muslim or Hindu tradition, but we should not be so smug, not that long ago, they were normal in the UK and the United States too. Women had few rights until relatively recently. They were not allowed to roam without being accompanied by a man.

Then along came the bicycle…

The impact of the bicycle on female emancipation should not be underestimated. The transition from the penny-farthing to the “safety bicycle” gave women unprecedented mobility, contributing to their larger participation in the politics of Western nations.

As bicycles became safer and cheaper, more women had access to the personal freedom they embodied, and so the bicycle came to symbolise the “New Woman” of the late nineteenth century, especially in Britain and the United States. Feminists and suffragettes recognised its transformative power.

Women in the 19th century who previously had little autonomy suddenly now had a machine that was self powered and negated the need for men to facilitate one’s travel.

1897 ad, showing unskirted garment for women’s bicycle riding

In 1895 Frances Willard used a cycling metaphor to urge other suffragettes to action, proclaiming, “I would not waste my life in friction when it could be turned into momentum.” Elizabeth Robins Pennell started cycling in the 1870s in Philadelphia, and from the 1880s onwards brought out a series of travelogues about her cycling journeys around Europe, from A Canterbury Pilgrimage to Over the Alps on a Bicycle. In 1895 Annie Londonderry became the first woman to bicycle around the world.


Of course many parts of the highly patriarchal Victorian society were appalled and in typically over-dramatic Victorian style an 1896 newspaper condemned these women saying:

“…these loose women are pedalling along the path of destruction […] Doctors warned that the unusual physical exertion, combined with the perilous lack of corsetry, would damage the feminine organs of matrimonial necessity and shake them loose…”

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.”.

This is suspiciously like the pronouncements of a prominent Saudi cleric who in 2013 declared that driving while female damages the ovaries.

The ridiculous concern that cycling might sexually stimulate women was also prevalent in 19th century Britain. It was thought that straddling a saddle combined with the jolting motion 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.

The backlash against the “New Woman” was demonstrated when male undergraduates of Cambridge University chose to show their opposition to the admission of women as full members of the university by hanging a woman in effigy in the main town square—tellingly, a woman on a bicycle—as late as 1897.

Yet some rose up to defend women against these ridiculous patriarchic claims. The Chicago Daily News said:

“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.”

Susan B. Anthony
said of the bicycle:

“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.”


The bicycle came to be seen as a revolutionary act because the sheer desirability of cycling attracted some women to become increasingly independent. How could men possibly be so mobile while women could not? What kind of practical impact did this have on women’s fashions?


There’s a very good case to be made that the rise of the suffragette movement, of the generation of (generally upper-class) women who really did things was as least partly accelerated by the shift in attitudes, attire and expectation of women that cycling brought.

After centuries of wearing ridiculous, limiting clothing, women cyclists were among the first activists to promote ‘rational dress’ that did not impede movement. To ride a bicycle you needed to discard your restrictive corsets and billowy skirts.

Bicycle suit vs conventional clothing

Since women could not cycle in the then-current fashions for voluminous and restrictive dress, the bicycle craze fed into a movement for so-called Rational Dress, which helped liberate women from corsets and ankle-length skirts and other encumbering garments, substituting them for bloomers which shocked Victorian sensibilities.

In 1911, a suffragette named Alice Hawkins, cycled around Leicester promoting the women’s rights movement, and caused outrage by wearing pantaloons in the city. During the fight to win the vote for women, the bicycle became not only a symbol but also a practical tool for the emancipation of women.

The Suffragettes

With the founding of the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903, the Suffragettes were born and the ‘Votes for Women’ fight began in earnest. In February 1907, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett, organized its first national demonstration, which became known as the ‘Mud March.’ At a demonstration a week later, more than 700 suffragettes made two vain attempts to force entry into the Houses of Parliament. Mounted police were called out to deal with the riot. Many women escaped capture on bicycles, but many of those on foot were arrested. Among the sixty-seven women taken into custody that day was Emmeline Pankhurst, who served fourteen days in Holloway Prison.

By 1910, demonstrations had become more militant. Initially, the amount of damage the suffragettes inflicted was negligible, but the forcible feeding to which hunger-strikers in prison were subjected changed the temper of the movement, so that more extreme measures became acceptable. Stone-throwing was introduced. At the start of this activity, the stones were usually wrapped in paper, to avoid injuring anyone accidentally. Sometimes, in addition, they were attached to string, the end of which was held by the thrower.

18th November, 1910 – later known as Black Friday – was a turning point in the suffragette movement. Following the failure of the first Conciliation Bill, there were violent clashes outside parliament. Suffragettes trying to reach parliament were treated particularly violently by roughs in the crowd and police who had orders to push them back. One suffragette, Ellen Pitfield, later died from her injuries. The events of Black Friday were a public relations disaster for the government: the press took the side of the Suffragettes, printing pictures of police assaulting unarmed female protesters. The actions of the police were greatly criticised.

In 1913, Emily Wilding Davison, a leading militant in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded in 1903, threw herself under a horse at the Derby. Four days later, Emily died in hospital of her injuries without regaining consciousness. It is not known whether she meant to kill herself, but this shows how desperate many suffragettes were to claim their rights.

Throughout all this drama, the power of the bicycle was not forgotten. After the outbreak of War in 1915, women were soon desperately needed to do the work left vacant by enlisted men. Attitudes were bound to change. By 1916, as seen in the advert below, women were able to ride a Raleigh bicycle with speed, ease and grace.

I find it a shame that we have almost completely forgotten the role that the bicycle played in the emancipation of women from the 1890s all the way to the late 1910s.

“Our daughters’ daughters will adore us, and they’ll sing in grateful chorus: Well done, Sister Suffragette”. This was the wish of the suffragettes of the time and we are now in the time of their “daughters’ daughters”.

Sadly today 3 times more men than women cycle and the number of female cyclists is actually declining. Women appear somewhat more reluctant to get on their bicycles. I would like to do everything in my power to help rebalance the ratio of women to men cyclists short of abandoning the bicycle myself. I urge all women not to forget the symbolic role that the bicycle has played in helping you to achieve the rights that you have. Put on your britches, oil up and get on yer bike!


Macy, Sue (2011) Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (with a Few Flat Tires Along the Way)

Erskine, F.J., (1897) Lady Cycling: What to Wear and How to Ride

Two wheels good: What the bicycle can do [did] for us –

Ladies’ Frames – elegant solution to a problem or blot on the progress of equality for women? Part 1 –

The Chains that Set Women Free (The Telegraph):

4 thoughts on “The Bicycle: Part 2 – Chains that Set Women Free

  1. Pingback: La bicicletta candidata al Nobel per la pace 2016 | Geeking Bad

  2. Pingback: La bicicletta candidata al Nobel per la pace 2016 | maticciofive

  3. Pingback: The perilous lack of corsetry | Francis James Franklin (Alina Meridon)

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