Today the bicycle is taken for granted as just another means of transportation or an essential element of exercise. However, back in the late 1800s it was another story enrobed with scandal and sexual improprieties.
In addition, the bicycle was viewed back in those good old days as an unnecessary expense—taking money away from the family table and, of course, from the church coffers. Some even preached it was an invention of the devil, especially when used for bicycle races.
And of course they said that women were being led astray as Eve was by the serpent—wanting to advance beyond her designated station in the home. The bicycle was the new apple on the tree of knowledge of good and evil or the gilded box of Pandora.
As always, sex came into the discussion as well. As many preachers proclaimed from the bully pulpits of the land, women who chose the bicycle were seeking forbidden pleasures by allowing the seat and the motion to awaken carnal appetites, which would lead down the road to lesbianism.
As women began to express themselves outside the confines of the home, many men and women found such activities vulgar and unbecoming. As women enjoyed the repast of being freed from the shackles of an indentured servant, they began to realize their dormant potential.
Many believe that these women began to question why it was a man’s world. Why men were the chosen species to rule and to decide what women could and could not to do came into question.
To many people the bicycle gave impetus to the annoying upheaval of the status quo, especially in the world of politics. Definitely politics were the realm of the male.
Women’s Suffrage—oh my—it was viewed an evil incarnate. The view of a liberated woman on a bicycle was a definite sign that the end of civilization as they knew it was on the precipice….And perhaps was the end of the world.
From the bicycle to the voting booth would be a contentious journey for women in this country. Of course, these were the germinating seeds which we see today in this country and elsewhere—where women are not only seated at the table, but in many instances control the agenda. However, before too many lauds are distributed on progress, one poignant fact remains on this planet traversing the cosmos:
Millions of women and especially girls are still resting on the timber line of krummholz. Before them is the beautiful mountain with wind-touched trees and snowcaps.
These women and girls languish and are allowed to suffer atrophy because of societal norms or religious dogma. They are not allowed to walk up the mountain because only men are deemed worthy of the walk.
Unfortunately, this sad reality is not limited to one geopolitical region or one particular religious community. Perhaps, the bicycle as a symbol represents a hope that one day that all humans (male and female) are given the same opportunities and privileges.
Like the old BBC series THE PRISONER they will cease to be mere numbers in their remote village and gain the freedom of individuality which Number 2 sought not only for himself but for all the rest of the denizens. Freedom to choose one’s destiny should be an inalienable right of all humans regardless of gender, orientation or religious affiliation.
G. D. Williams © 2017
“I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world, upon whose spinning wheel we must all earn to ride, or fall into the sluiceways of oblivion and despair. That which made me succeed with the bicycle was precisely what had gained me a measure of success in life — it was the hardihood of spirit that led me to begin, the persistence of will that held me to my task, and the patience that was willing to begin again when the last stroke had failed. And so I found high moral uses in the bicycle and can commend it as a teacher without pulpit or creed. She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life.”
Frances E. Willard, ‘How I Learned To Ride The Bicycle’, 1895
“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.”
― Susan B. Anthony
How the Bicycle Paved the Way for Women’s Rights
By the 1890s, America was totally obsessed with the bicycle—which by then looked pretty much like the ones we ride today. There were millions of bikes on the roads and a new culture built around the technology. People started “wheelmen” clubs and competed in races. They toured the country and compared tricks and stunts.
The craze was meaningful, especially, for women. Both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are credited with declaring that “woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle,” a line that was printed and reprinted in newspapers at the turn of the century. The bicycle took “old-fashioned, slow-going notions of the gentler sex,” as The Courier (Nebraska) reported in 1895, and replaced them with “some new woman, mounted on her steed of steel.” And it gave women a new level of transportation independence that perplexed newspaper columnists across the country.