Women Bicyclists Break Their Glass Cages and Ride into Liberation
Women and bicycles proved to be a winning combination. The use of bicycles expanded around the world and women using bicycles found confidence and freedom.
Woman’s suffragist Susan B. Anthony said that a woman on a bicycle presents “the picture of free and untrammeled womanhood.”
“Free and untrammeled womanhood” stretched a global trek away from the Victorian sentiment that women were too frail to ride bicycles. Instead of the glass ceiling, women in the 19th century were trapped in glass cages. The Victorian woman who wanted to stray beyond the confines of her corsets and hobble shirts and the windows of her home bound existence had to change the expectation of her society. Society viewed her as a frail middleclass “proper” lady who could not study, work, or vote. She was defenseless and entirely dependent on men. Lower class women were more familiar with the world of work and the hardships of life than the middle class woman, but they didn’t bicycle either.
Women Dress for Bicycling
Then in the late 19th century, the bicycle rode leagues toward liberating women from their glass cages and uniting the classes in a common enjoyment –cycling! A woman had to leave the house and physically exert herself to bicycle, but before she could bicycle, the Victorian lady had to change her clothes – radically as well as literally. Instead of tightly laced corsets and long, heavy underskirts, the lady cyclist had to wear more practical clothes so she wouldn’t get tangled up in the chain or wrap her skirts around the wheel.
Bicycling called for shorter skirts, and even bloomers.
// A New Kind of Bicycle Skirt
According to a story in the Brooklyn Eagle of March 19, 1894, Mrs. Lena Sittig, a member of the International Bicycle Club, had invented six dresses for women bicycle riders. She talked about her work in an interview with a Brooklyn Eagle reporter. Mrs. Sittig told the reporter that a committee of women approached her, asking her to invent a perfect bicycle skirt, one that would not wind or catch on the pedal or blow up on a windy day. It would have to make all petticoats and superfluous underwear unnecessary.
Mrs. Sittig said that she had invented a double skirt, one that would not catch or blow up, the under part which was held to the hip line of the leg in a way to allow ease of movement for the wearer. It could be adjusted to any length and the elastic belt moved with every motion of the body. It also contained a watch pocket that opened and closed, but firmly held a watch or money.
Miss Beckwith’s Skirt and Her Bicycle Wheel to the Rescue
According to Mrs. Sittig, her skirt was a life saver. She told the story of Miss Caremlita Beckwith, a noted wheelwoman, who was riding along one beautiful October day when a pair of runaway grays and their frantic driver bore down upon her. She deliberately went over the front wheel of her bicycle and her skirt followed her. She swore that she had better control of her skirt than the driver did his horses and that the skirt saved her life.
Mrs. Sittig exhibited her bicycle dresses around Brooklyn and she predicted that the dress that would be the most popular was made double and was worn over tight fitting trousers. “It must be seen to be appreciated,” she said.
The Women’s Rescue League
Bicycling had become very popular by the late 1880s and by 1898, the number of cyclists was estimated to reach nearly 200,000. Many of these cyclists were women. A bicycle was much easier to mount than a horse and it didn’t have to be ridden sidesaddle. A woman could get on a bicycle and pedal miles away from home. Many women did just that.
Some people disapproved, dreaded, and distrusted the new freedom that bicycling gave to women. The brave women who wore bloomers were banned from public places and criticized in the press. Many people were also afraid that the mobility that the bicycle allowed women would morally corrupt them and some called the bicycle a tool of the devil.
The Women’s Rescue League met in Brooklyn, New York in August 1896, and vowed to attempt to stop women from bicycling. One of the reasons they cited was they believed that bicycling produced armies of “reckless women” who gradually drifted into a vast underclass of former women cyclists who lowered the moral tone of society.
Women Cycle into Liberation, World’s Records and Freedom
Despite all of the efforts to stop them, women still cycled individually and in groups and to the surprise of the doomsayers, they didn’t faint or commit moral crimes. In fact, they became more fit, relaxed, and engaged in life. Cycling gave them self sufficiency, health, and freedom from restrictive clothing and social bonds.
Women cyclists didn’t waste any time in impacting the cycling world. On June 25, 1894, Annie Londonderry cycled around the world, the first woman to do so. Alfonsina Morini raced and placed in the men’s Giro in 1924. In 1958, Elsy Jabobs won the world cycling championships. By 1995, Jeannie Longo had won the world championship a total of five times.
It is a testament to the acumen and adaptability of women that they transformed the bicycle into an instrument of their liberation and used it to establish their skill at competing and winning.
Perhaps the most important bicycling skill that women have developed is exploring the exhilarating freedom of pedaling down a bike trail, the wind blowing across bare arms and legs and the trail stretching endlessly and enticingly ahead.
Bernhardt, Gale, Bicycling for Women. VeloPress, 2008.
Friel, Joe, The Cyclists Training Bible. VeloPress, 2009.
Herlihy, David V., Bicycle-The History. Yale University Press,