Women empowerment and bikes? Yes, bicycles have played an important historical — and often unheard of — role in women’s empowerment.
When the first safety bicycles, or modern day bicycles, were invented in late 19th century, a bicycle boom engulfed the nation. Suddenly, the dangerous high-wheeled bikes used for extreme men’s sport were replaced by a safer design model that could be ridden by almost anyone — including women.
Even the famous American sharpshooter, Annie Oakley, was a big fan of the bicycle, or the wheel as it was called at the time. Known for her performances in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, Annie Oakley didn’t just shoot while riding horseback; she also taught herself to ride a bike without touching the handlebars in order to hit targets.
In 1892, this quote expressed her enthusiasm:
I am delighted with my wheel. I am equally as fond of it as my horse. —Annie Oakley, American Sharpshooter
As it became safer and less expensive to own, the bicycle became the mainstream transportation tool for everyday use. For women, it also gave them newfound freedom of movement.
The previous generation of Victorian women were culturally expected to stay at home. Idealized for virtues such as domesticity and motherhood, the Victorian woman’s role kept her away from public life. The bicycle afforded women an accepted way to be outside as part of society including when it came to business and politics. Through simple mobility, the bicycle also helped to accelerate many women’s rights.
“Woman is riding to suffrage on a bicycle” — Elizabeth Cady Stanton Click to Tweet
It’s not surprising that many members of the women’s suffrage movement were also bicycle riders. Bicycles gave the suffragettes independence of movement without chaperones. Women became more aware of the public climate and could meet each other freely to socialize as well as to organize.
Women’s rights activist, Susan B. Anthony, said it best:
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. Click to Tweet
Susan B. Anthony and the rest of American society recognized that the Victorian paradigm of womanhood was shifting. The New Woman was emerging. As described in the papers of the time, The New Woman was independent, self-reliant and in the public eye. According to Nebraska’s The Courier in 1895, the bicycle promised to put [The New Woman] at the very front of the political profession and to give her an advanced standing in all the other fields of thought and endeavor.
Like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton also believed in the power of bicycles to empower women’s lives. Though she was in her 80s when the bicycle boom captivated the nation, she still expressed her optimism for the bicycle:
“The bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect, and self-reliance and make the next generation more vigorous of mind and of body.” Click to Tweet
In 1895, The San Francisco Call remarked “The New Woman is gliding along to better health of mind and body, but there was a small debate about whether or not cycling was healthy for women. The conventional view saw women as fragile and frail. Yet progressive medical opinion prevailed, favoring casual cycling for women’s health. Dr. Edwin Kuh, a Chicago physician, went so far as to say, I believe that physicians should advise their bachelor clients not to marry any girl who doesn’t ride a bicycle.
As bicycles became popular, wheelmen clubs became ubiquitous. These clubs were leisure groups similar to the clubs of today with activities, newsletters, uniforms and competitions. While many of these clubs were exclusively for men, some clubs made room for the new wheelwomen who wanted to join. Some women also started making exclusive cycling clubs of their own.
As they became more athletic, women began getting involved in record-breaking competitions and sporting feats. The six day races created in the 1880s to test men’s endurance became open to women in the 1890s. With limitations, women were allowed to compete in their own separate events and only ride for up to a few hours each day. As women competed, they also sought to equal men in the cycling sport.
In 1895, American Annie Londonderry Kopchovsky became the first woman to ride around the world on a bicycle. Londonderry shockingly left her husband and children at home to embark on a fifteen month journey that took her from the East Coast to France then through the Middle East and Asia back to the West Coast; finally crossing the U.S. on two wheels. Though accounts of her trip and fitness are debated, her trip was widely publicized, and she financed her trip through advertising as well as sponsorship.
In 1896, Bicycling World had the prescience to declare that the release of the bondage of ridiculous feminine garb, which the bicycle is expected to bring about, appears to be close at hand. They were right.
As women started dealing with the realities of riding bicycles in Victorian dresses, they started to realized the limitations and dangers of their clothing. Corsets were too restricting for activity. Dresses with petticoats were too heavy and obstructive. Reformists calling for rational dress were the first-wave of feminists in the United States, but women cyclist looking for new clothing options gave this movement new momentum.
In the early Victorian era, New Yorker Amelia Jenks Bloomer invented a comfortable, bi-furcated garment (similar to pants) to be worn underneath dresses. Inspired by the Turkish trousers worn by women in the Middle East, Bloomer promoted the idea of her new bloomers as an alternative to hoops and petticoats. Her invention was controversial, but after Bloomer’s death in 1894, cycling women started stirring up more controversy by wearing an updated version of the bloomer.
From fitness to fashion, the bicycle inspired a generation of women towards greater equality and paved the way for greater freedom to come. This optimism for bicycles and their role in moving women forward is best expressed by Suffragist Frances E. Willard who said:
I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world. Click to Tweet
At World Bicycle Relief, we mobilize people through The Power of Bicycles — especially women and girls. While history has shown us that bicycles have played an important role in empowering women, World Bicycle Relief sees bicycles still playing a vital role in empowering women and girls in developing regions of the world today.
Through our Bicycles for Education Empowerment Program (BEEP), girls with Buffalo Bicycles are able to go to school and stay in school despite the obstacles they may face. Often with more chores than their brothers, girls fall behind and are neglected in pursuing equal opportunities. In the rural regions of the world where we work, girls often have to travel long distances on unpaved roads and in unpredictable environments. They arrive to school tired if they even arrive at all.
“When a bicycle is there, I think everything can be possible.” —Barbara Lungu Click to Tweet
With a bicycle, a girl student gets to school on time, refreshed and ready to learn. Giving a girl access to education ensures she has the confidence and knowledge to make her own choices in life. Trends show that with an education, girls have smaller families, later marriages, better health, and improved financial situations. Educating girls fosters well being and freedom of movement for them as well as their communities.
How African Women Gain Momentum with Bicycles
Support World Bicycle Relief through Amazon purchases like the books below by choosing us as your charity through AmazonSmile.
Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom by Sue Macy with Forward written by World Bicycle Relief’s cofounder, Leah Missbach Day.
How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle: Reflections of an Influential 19th Century Woman by Frances E. Willard.
Women on Bikes: Victoria & Albert Museum
Annie Oakley & Bicycle: The Brighton Bicycle Club
The New Woman & Her Bicycle: Library of Congress
Co-Ed Bicycle Club in Sag Harbor: The East Hampton Star: Treasures From the Archive