The Possibility of Mobility:

Women

Amongst the bicycles most important, and perhaps most enduring, legacies is its effect upon women's issues; indeed the mark the bicycle left upon gender relations in the 1890s is difficult to underestimate. One must remember that the America of years past was one of rigidly defined gender roles, with distinctly separate spheres of activity for men and women. The distinctions between the sexes were certainly as rigidly defined as ever in the years leading up to the 1890s--the years we popularly refer to as the Victorian era.

However, as the 19th century came to a close, women were gradually making headway into the male-dominated public sphere, through increased roles in education, social and political organizations. Perhaps as a response to the seemingly increasing potential for equality amongst the sexes, men begin to more and more delineate themselves in terms of physical prowess. Cycling, then took its natural place amongst football, baseball, and other male dominated spheres of activity. One can imagine the indignation, often expressed in terms of health or morality, that many a male felt when the woman was shown to be just as adept at handling the cycle as her counterpart.

Simply put, the bicycle allowed for movement into new spaces, literally and figuratively. The woman of the 19th century who had been given little opportunity to cultivate or express her autonomy now had a vessel with which one could not only develop autonomous power, but do so while leaving behind the old reliance upon men for travel. It's easy to see then, why Susan B. Anthony, women's rights advocate and future star of an ill-fated dollar, was to say that the bicycle had "done more to emancipate women then anything else in the world".(Willard, 90)

bloomersThis emancipation came in many forms, and not the least of which was the casting off of the impractical clothing styles that had long kept women's bodies uncomfortably covered. The advent and the ensuing popularity of the safety bicycle, with its appeal to both sexes mandated that women cast off their corsets and figure out some way around their long, billowy skirts. The answer to the skirt question was to be found in the form of bloomers, which were little more than very baggy trousers, cinched at the knee. Bloomers provoked wrath in conservatives and delight in women cyclists, and the garment was to become the centerpiece of the "rational dress" movement that sprung up at the end of the 19th century. The rational dress society statement of purpose reads in part: The Rational Dress society protests against the introduction of any fashion in dress that either deforms the figure, impedes the movement of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health. It protests against the wearing of tightly fitted corsets, of high-heeled or narrow toed boots and shoes; of heavily weighted skirts, as rendering healthy exercise almost impossible.... (Dodge, 126) The bloomer quickly made a host of enemies, however, and many a bloomer clad women complained of being ridiculed, fined, and even treated "like a prostitute" by local authorities.(Willard, 94).

Rational dress aside, the bicycle, despite being heaped with scorn by outraged men, was consistently trumpeted by progressive women as a tool for increased freedoms. Indeed, many feminist tracts of the day frequently invoked the bicycle as a metaphor for increased self-control, with perhaps the president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union Frances' Willard's How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle being among the most famous. Similarly, the author of Bicycling for Ladies, Maria Ward, bluntly notes that "Riding the wheel, our powers are revealed to us...".

Ride or DieIt is precisely this sort of attitude, empowerment coupled with visions of an increasingly egalitarian future, that angered many men greatly. Simply put, the woman on wheels was a threat to the well ingrained system of practical inferiority that men had been taking advantage of for centuries, and outraged men were quick to point to the bicycle as a threat to the social order. The cycle, it was argued, would disrupt the delicate sphere of the family unit by allowing the woman to travel beyond her previous limits without the surveillance of a knowing husband nearby. The younger woman, too was vulnerable to a bicycle induced lapse in morals, for it allowed her to stray farther a field with members of the opposite sex during courtship.

The leveling effect acheived by the woman on the bicyle was so great that the coming of the automobile and subsequent demise of the bicyle can be though of as a major step backwards for women's empowerment.

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