Freedom machines!

First thing! Just a reminder, my lovely boyfriend (and cohabitant, ’cause we’re modern like that) is leading a Three-Speed Ride tomorrow! It meets at the Joan of Arc statue at NE Glisan and Cesar Chavez (aka 39th), tomorrow (Saturday) at eleven am. You don’t have to have a three-speed, but if you do have a bike with internal gearing, please do ride it! More details at the link, of course. I’ll be making crumpets, and unlike the Tweed Ride, I’m hoping to make real crumpets instead of something that just sort of vaguely resembles them. I need to find a recipe that makes the kind with all the holes, the ones I made before were basically just yeast-raised pancakes. Delicious with marmalade, but not really crumpets. *sigh*

On to the real subject of this post: the history of women and bicycles.

Now, I’m a little bit of a history nerd, but what fascinates me isn’t wars or leaders, but the day-to-day stuff of people’s lives. What was it really like to be a person then? And being a woman (and a feminist), the history of women’s lives, and how they’ve changed over time, is especially interesting to me. (And, by the way, one of the best books I’ve read recently on the history of our daily lives was At Home: a Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson. Such an entertaining read, but I often had to read it in front of my computer with wikipedia open to look up stuff I wanted to learn more about!)

Obviously, when I started riding a bicycle, and became obsessed with bikes, I had to know more about the history of women and bicycles. And what a juicy subject it is! Bicycles are credited with giving women their first real taste of independence (because they could get around on their own) and finally making women’s clothing more comfortable and practical (because it was too hard to ride in the corsets and layered floor-length dresses women used to wear).

If you do even the most cursory research into the subject of women and bicycles, you come across what is, without a doubt, one of my favorite quotes ever, by Susan B. Anthony in 1896:

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

It’s hard for us modern ladies to really know how limiting women’s lives were at the time. It was nearly impossible to go anywhere on your own. Walking took forever and was uncomfortable at long distances in the kind of clothing that women were culturally expected to wear (the “rational dress” movement hoped to get women’s undergarments–just their undergarments–down to seven pounds). You couldn’t ride a horse except side-saddle, which wasn’t very comfortable over long distances, I’d guess. And a horse and buggy or carriage? Very few women could afford them on their own, and even less would drive them alone. Plus, good women didn’t leave the house without male escort. Many had to, because they worked, but women of “good breeding” would not.

The bicycle offered a freedom to women they’d never had before: a fairly fast way of moving on their own. Women took to the bicycle during the bicycle craze of the 1890’s in huge numbers, necessitating the invention of the “drop” frame, or the kind we now think of as a women’s or step-through frame. They could go riding alone, getting exercise and fresh air and just generally enjoying themselves.

It was terribly controversial at first. People worried that bicycle saddles would damage woman’s reproductive organs, or that the exercise would be too much of a strain on their supposedly more fragile bodies. But there was also definitely an aura of moral panic about the whole thing. Young ladies could go off with young gentlemen without a chaperone! Who knows what trouble they could get into! (Well, everyone knew exactly what kind of trouble…)

And then there was the changes in women’s apparel. While plenty of women managed to ride bicycles in their usual clothing, and they sometimes utilized tricks like sewing ball bearings into the hems of their skirts to keep them from flying up, or putting crocheted skirt guards onto their rear wheels (you can still find crochet patterns for them!); many women wanted to wear something more comfortable and safe: (gasp!) pants! The first brave women to wear “cycling costume” were spit on and called unpleasant things by bystanders, but eventually most people got used to the idea that women were allowed to wear special clothing just for cycling, in much the same way that a bikini is okay on the beach or at the pool but frowned upon in, say, the grocery store. And eventually, women realized that it would be nice to have clothing that was comfortable all the time…and so women’s skirts started becoming shorter, pants became more acceptable, and the corset stopped being a required item…all because ladies love bicycles!

Shawn got me the book Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (with a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) for our anniversary in February. It’s written for a middle-school-aged audience, but don’t let that stop you. There’s lots of great pictures, excerpts from historical interviews and articles, and a great overview of the topic. If you’d like a taste of the photos, look here, where Grist has posted a short slideshow. My favorite image is the third one–not only does it show African Americans with bicycles during the height of the bike craze (which is something you just don’t see much), it shows women in a variation of cycling costume involving skirts maybe nine inches from the ground, who are clearly riding diamond-frame bicycles! See, I have historical precedent for riding diamond-frames in my skirts!

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