Friday, April 15, 2011

Wheels of Change: how women rode the bicycle to freedom (with a few flat tires along the way)

This delightful National Geographic book by Sue Macy tells the story of how women got moving and active – thanks to the bicycle. I hadn’t before thought that the simple bicycle held such profound significance as a cultural agent of change, yet it radically redefined the ideals of femininity in the late-nineteenth-century.

To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.” Munsey’s Magazine, 1896

Not only did the bicycle do away with the need for a chaperone, but it also liberated women from the constraints of corsets and giant skirts. The bike-riding women pioneered a more radical dress, including a dual garment which consisted of a divided skirt worn under a long coat, breeches beneath skirts, and bloomers and jackets. The idea appealed to many as sensible and practical. A more public airing to the idea of women wearing appropriate clothes for safe movement in activities begun, and more liberal, free fashions started emerging. The new fashions also cut the weight of the women’s undergarments to around 3.5 kilograms!

Susan B. Anthony, said 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. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.” 

Me too. Only now I know why!