cycling · gender policing

Bicycles: Making good women go bad since the 1800s


I’ve been working on a project on women and cycling, which begins by looking at the role the bicycle played in early feminism. One of the things I’m interested in seeing is whether the attitudes to women on bikes in the 1800s have entirely gone away.  What I argue, in the course of a longer paper on the subject, is that they haven’t. In fact, I think some of the same attitudes pose an obstacle to getting more women on bikes now.

(If you want a terrific book on the history of women, feminism, and bikes suitable for children you need to get National Geographic‘s Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way). It’s reviewed here with some great photos and an interview with the author. There’s lots to like about it but one of the striking features is the inclusion of images of African American women on bikes. In historical pictures from that era, both of the bicycles and of feminism, African Americans are often missing.)

I hope to keep blogging here about women on cycling, following on from my recent post about worries I have about attempts to get women on bikes,  cupcake rides and heels on wheels.

Yesterday I also posted on our Facebook page about British cycling launches plan to get one million women on bikes and some of the worries people have raised about the flavour of those attempts. See British cycling: women get a push.  It seems to me it might be useful to distinguish between two different, though connected goals: getting more women on bikes (including commuting, casual riding) and getting more women into the sport of cycling.

But let’s leave today and return to the heyday of the bicycle and the early feminist movement.

Most people writing about this era, when bicycles ruled the road,  quote Susan B. Anthony:  “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” Sounds harmless enough.

Who on earth could oppose “free, untrammeled womanhood”? Why was there such vehement opposition to women riding bikes?

Not as many people quote Sarah Bernhardt: “The bicycle is on the way to transforming our way of life more deeply than you might think. All these young women and girls who are devouring space are refusing domestic family life.”

Aha! This gives us a better sense of the roots of the anti-women-on-bikes backlash. Bikes posed a threat to women staying at home. With bicycles to ride, women had choices.

Women’s cycling was an activity opposed on many grounds. I’ll be writing another post on the medical issues that were thought to be connected to women riding bikes. (Short story: think sexual depravity, exhaustion, and infertility.) But along with doctors, clergy were another group that often spoke out, in print and in sermons, against women riding bikes.

Cycling was obviously unladylike (just look at the bloomers!) and there are many published speeches by clergy against the spectacle posed by women on bikes. Other clergy worried that access to transportation would make it easier for women to give into our baser natures and undertake morally loathsome activities, including prostitution and infidelity. I just love the idea that the only impediment to women’s wild sexual misbehavior is the lack of reliable independent transport.

Here is a great quote from that era, raising the specter that cycling corrupts women’s innocence.

“Cycling tends to destroy the sweet simplicity of her girlish nature; besides how dreadful it would be if, by some accident, she were to fall into the arms of a strange man” (cited in Hargreaves, 1993) Thanks Mark Falcous for pointing this one out to me.

I can’t imagine falling off my bike into someone’s arms (that would take rather a lot of coordination) but I do take the point about freedom. Here in our house, I always feel much more free from the demands of family members when I’m on my bike. “Oh, no I can’t pick you up from school. I’m on my bike. Sorry!” And there isn’t the same rush to get home so that others can use the car. Indeed, in warmer months motorized vehicles stand abandoned on our driveway as both drivers in our house pedal away on bikes. To me, the bike does feel a lot more liberating!

My favourite clergy quote admits that cycling isn’t always a bad thing: “The mere act of riding a bicycle is not in itself sinful and if it is the only means of reaching the church on a Sunday, it may be excusable.” (1885)

Indeed, some churches recognized that attendance might be in danger given that Sunday bike rides now gave both men and women a choice of something to do Sunday mornings besides sit in church. So those churches started installing bike racks and suggesting that families ride to church, thus combining the best of both worlds. Maybe churches worried about dwindling congregations, especially in the summer, ought to think about the outdoor physical activity + church combo.

It’s starting to get warm out there and I’m very keen to get back on my bike. Hope to see you out there, you untrammeled spirits you!



The Awful Effects of Velocipeding from Harm! A Vagrant

A List of Don’ts for Women on Bicycles Circa 1895

Watch:, Women’s Liberation and the Bicycle

SPIN: A Theatrical Song Cycle
Starring The Bicycle as Muse, Musical Instrument, and Agent of Social Change by Evalyn Parry


37 thoughts on “Bicycles: Making good women go bad since the 1800s

  1. I thought this was good but hope that you blog more about this. I ride both casually and as a commuter and am teaching my daughter to do the same. I’d love to see more research on this.

    1. No worries. I’ll blog more about bikes, for sure. What are you interested in hearing more about?

      1. Hi Sam, have you done the post on the medical issues thought to be connected to women and cycling? Would love to read it! Thanks for a great post!

  2. Have you ever seen “Manor House”? It was originally BBC, but was broadcast in the States on PBS. It puts a modern family in an early 20th-c manor house with the expectation that they live as the family would have. ( It’s Downton Abbey as “reality” TV. I thought it was great.

    One of the family members was the unmarried sister of the woman of the house. As was typical of that time period, the range of activities she was permitted to engage in were limited and were managed by her brother-in-law. At one point she was allowed access to a bicycle. When they taped her riding, she burst into tears. Just being able to get out of the house and make decisions on her own, even if it was just where to ride was a huge relief for her.

    No doubt the phenomenological experience of a modern woman who willingly accepts to play by these rules and who then regains some freedom is different from the freedom gained for real at the time, but to see it was quite striking.

  3. Much enjoyed your post, thank you! The contemporary, Japanese silkscreen artist, Mayumi Oda, took on the classic female nude in the arts and transformed her into a Goddess riding a bicycle!! A search at Google images for Mayumi Oda AND Bicycle produces some fabulous artworks.

  4. Reblogged this on Gratitude every day and commented:
    Today I am grateful for the fact that I came across this original fresh blog and this particular post about women’s cycling that shows that patriarchy will suppress us in any and every way it can, and at the same time that there are million of ways to rise, rebel and win.

  5. “I just love the idea that the only impediment to women’s wild sexual misbehavior is the lack of reliable independent transport.” Brilliant!

  6. A very enjoyable and diverting blog on the history of women and bikes…fascinating stuff! To think that bikes narrowly avoided being deemed sinful by transporting women to church – ye gods – liberated by default!

  7. I remember the sudden increase in my ranging radius and the sense of freedom I gained when I learned to ride a bike as a kid 🙂 I still love biking and commute/do errands by bike as much as possible.

  8. I am from the Netherlands and was born into a society where everybody cycles. When I visited my family on Aruba, my catholic grandmother called me a devil child because at 25 years old I was still single and rode everywhere on my bike.
    Aruba -small as it is- has a severe car culture.

  9. I know I am very late to the game, but I wanted to share an anecdote, in that cycling helped me leave a bad relationship, and introduced me to many good ones.

    My ex-husband and I were a terrible couple. We didn’t fight; there was no abuse, but there was also no connection. We bore with each other stoically for years, for reasons that I never could quite divine.

    I am a lifelong cyclist, and during the course of that marriage, got more seriously into the sport, going on group rides, occasionally racing, and doing a few charity rides. On the MS150 that fateful year, I was cranking along, letting my mind wander as a mind will on a century, when I found myself mentally dividing up our respective possessions, lining out a budget, and basically formulating my exit plan. By the time we hit camp for the night, I realised I was about to get a divorce. I’d made so many supportive connections via cycling, so many great friendships and had so many good times, that I had come to realise that I deserved better than mutual grudging tolerance at home.

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