The Sporting Life for 19th Century Women: Bicycling


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.

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,

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15 thoughts on “The Sporting Life for 19th Century Women: Bicycling”

  1. nan lalnan lal

    Very illuminating. Wheels "fed on oil and air" make such good pets. But how exactly was a woman meant to "flatten her sphere to a circle"?

  2. WorstProfEverWorstProfEver

    Hi K.B., liked your post. Funnily enough, I ended talking about women’s cycling in my Greek Mythology class: the Atalanta Club of New Zealand was formed to promote women’s sports rights long before title 9…and used Atalanta, the great mythological runner, for inspiration, yay!

  3. Loree HuebnerLoree Huebner

    This is a great post.

    I bet the bicycle was freeing for women. I know as a child, it was freeing to me. I can’t imagine riding in those skirts though. I still ride.

    Loved the article.

  4. Tiffany A WhiteTiffany A White

    I would love to own a 19th century bicycle….wouldn’t you? Very enjoyable, and historical post, Kathy!

  5. Paige KellermanPaige Kellerman

    Seriously, KB…how’s you get a picture of me in my “bicycle riding outfit”?…lol Good post!

  6. westwoodwestwood

    Thanks for the link… I think the claim about the bicycle being the greatest emancipator of women is a rather interesting one and being an avid cyclist myself, I think it definitely warrants further investigation!

  7. Jenny HansenJenny Hansen

    Anything about how women originally pushed the barriers of their world is awesome. It is amazing to me how few rights we had back in the day when we look at women running for president now. (Not that our female politicians aren’t STILL subjected to blatant sexism…but don’t get me started!)

    Can you imagine riding a bike in the summer heat in those heavy skirts and bloomers? Holy cow, what a thought!

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