While a number of sports activities were enjoyed by women in the 19th century (especially at women’s colleges) – basketball, tennis, and golf, to name a few – bicycling was by far the most popular. Susan B. Anthony asserted, in 1896, that “The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world.”
Can you imagine the challenge of riding a bicycle in full skirts?
Here’s a more sensible bicycling costume below, with a shorter, divided skirt (aka “bloomers”):
However, “rational dress” caused a stir in some places, and occasionally women were subject to harrassment. (I can’t imagine the commotion that current outfits would cause). By the 1890s, however, the costume to the left was generally accepted. With bicycling in modified attire, women could enjoy freedom of movement, physical exercise, and time outdoors, as seen by the article below, written in 1895.
WOMAN AND THE BICYCLE
By Marguerite Merington
[Scribner’s magazine. / Volume 17, Issue 6, June, 1895]
“THE collocation of woman and the
bicycle has not wholly outgrown con-
troversy, but if the womans taste be
for the royal pleasure of glowing exer-
cise in sunlit air, she will do well quietly
but firmly to override argument with
the best model of a wheel to which she
may lay hand.
Never did an athletic pleasure from
which the other half is not debarred
come into popularity at a more fitting
time than cycling has to-day, when a
heavy burden of work is laid on all the
sisterhood, whether to do good, earn
bread, or squander leisure; no out-
door pastime can be more indepen-
dently pursued, and few are as prac-
ticable as many days in a year. The
one who fain would ride, and to whom
a horse is a wistful dream, at least
may hope to realize a wheel. Once pur-
chased, it needs only to be stabled in a
passageway, and fed on oil and air.
Now and again a complaint
arises of the narrowness of womans
sphere. For such disorder of the soul
the sufferer can do no better than to
flatten her sphere to a circle, mount it,
and take to the road.”
(Love that last metaphor)
Cornell University and the Library of Congress have collaborated on a massive digital library preservation project, which is where I found the above Scribner’s article. It’s a wonderful resource:
The Nineteenth Century in Print
For additional information about women cyclists in the 19th century, check this link. It has some cool period photographs.
Until next time,