It’s National Bike Month! Read About the History of Bicycles and Feminism
It’s May, which means we’re celebrating National Bike Month – and Friday, May 19th was the little-recognized National Bike-to-Work Day. Though I’m proud to note that I, myself, regularly bike to work, I’ll admit it’s not always the easiest choice, and one I didn’t make until recently. For many years, I lived in Pittsburgh, PA, where steep hills and aggressive drivers make bicycling something of an intimidating proposition – one suffered with pride by hardcore bike punks and fitness lovers alike. But when I moved a few years ago to a smaller city in the flat Great Plains, bicycling became much more appealing. As a child and teenager, I used to love riding around my neighborhood, occasionally with friends but often just by myself, deep in contemplation. And while I don’t ride aimlessly much anymore, the ease of riding to and from work has brought back some of those positive memories. My commute on my black-and-pink Schwinn cruiser is a mellow ten minutes, and what it lacks in comfort (particularly on sweaty or freezing days), it makes up for in pure freedom.
Though I’m now an instructor with a come-and-go schedule, when I used to work full time as an academic advisor, I especially appreciated the freedom my bicycle brought me. When 5 o’clock rolled around, many coworkers would be headed for their cars, the backed-up campus traffic, and the gridlock of the interstate. How lovely it was to get on and fly, breeze in my hair, knowing I’d be home with plenty of time to start dinner before the PBS NewsHour. When a coworker with a commute once noticed I had a bike, she eyed it wistfully. “I’d love to bike to work – to be able to hop on and just go,” she said.
And it was that ability to just go that made the bicycle so important to women when female-friendly models were first manufactured in the late 1800s. Back in 2012, I read an incredibly interesting article by Lynn Peril in Bust Magazine – one worth revisiting – about the bicycle’s importance to the women’s movement. Peril writes about how bicycles’ late-nineteenth century explosion in popularity opened up a newfound sense of freedom and mobility to women across the United States and beyond. Peril cites Maria E. Ward, an author of the time period:
"Riding the wheel, our own powers are revealed to us," she wrote in Bicycling for Ladies, an 1896 how-to book devoted to the subject. "The system is invigorated, the spirit is refreshed, the mind...swept of dusty cobwebs...You have conquered a new world, and exultingly you take possession of it."
With this newfound trend, however, came the usual patriarchal spate of warnings about the potential of bicycles to corrupt women’s “innocence” and sexual purity, as well as harm them physically. Peril writes,
Doctors worried about the gynecological consequences for female bike riders and wrote medical journal articles with titles like "Harmful Effects of the Bicycle Upon the Girl's Pelvis." The problem, as they saw it, lay with the design of the bicycle saddle. If a woman rode with her weight too far forward, it might lead "to friction and heating of the parts where it is very undesirable and may lead to dangerous practices," explained a physician in 1896.
And even more dangerous, to the minds of many men at the time, was the mental and spiritual influence of bicycling on women, whose worlds and minds were being opened up like never before. This practice of bicycling, thus, went hand in hand with the growing sense of liberation that culminated in the suffrage movement of the early twentieth century. Peril writes,
The idea that physical freedom led to mental liberation, and by extension to a political awakening, was popular—which is probably why the vision of women on bicycles terrified conservative minds. Riding the wheel, one became "alert, active, quick-sighted, and keenly alive as well as to the rights of others as to what is due yourself," wrote Maria Ward in Bicycling for Ladies.
It’s a fascinating history – one that we don’t typically hear about – and it’s all the more reason to hop in the saddle for a bicycle ride. When you leave the office or the house and start pedaling toward the horizon, you may just find that same “keenly alive” feeling, the feeling of being “refreshed,” “invigorated,” free.
Check out the full article in Bust.