Women_bicycle_1901

For me, a bicycle represents exercise, a pleasure ride down a country road, or an eco friendly trip to the farmer’s market. I’ve written in the past of my fondness for riding on two wheels. For Victorian women of the mid 1800’s, bicycles represented something quite different, something I’ve taken for granted — freedom.

Susan B. Anthony dedicated herself to advancing the women’s suffrage movement throughout the mid to late 1800’s. “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling,” she said. “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 (photo source: Library of Congress) and Amelia Bloomer (photo source: Illustrated London News -- Image scan and text by Philip V. Allingham)
Susan B Anthony (photo source: Library of Congress) and Amelia Bloomer (photo source: Illustrated London News — Image scan and text by Philip V. Allingham)

Anthony predicted that women cyclists would develop a preference for clothing suited to this new activity — garments more closely resembling men’s trousers. In her journal, The Lily, women’s rights advocate Amelia Bloomer wrote, “The costume of women should be suited to her wants and necessities. It should conduce at once to her health, comfort, and usefulness; and, while it should not fail also to conduce to her personal adornment, it should make that end of secondary importance.” Bloomer introduced a variation of Turkish apparel; a shorter dress with a blousy pant worn underneath. The fashion was quickly dubbed “bloomers” and grew in popularity until it became the uniform of the suffrage movement.

I actually saw the bloomer dress in an episode of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman. Her forward thinking sister, Majorie, stepped off the train sporting bloomers and the entire town drew their breath in. I must confess, that I was puzzled at their extreme reaction. Now that I’ve learned more about women’s clothing of the day, I understand.

Whale bone corset (source: unknown) Delivering Hoop Dresses, London, c.1854 (source: unknown) Brown Hoop Dress 1850 (source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Whale bone corset (source: unknown) Delivering Hoop Dresses, London, c.1854 (source: unknown) Brown Hoop Dress 1850 (source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Leading up to the advent of bloomers, women commonly wore two restrictive undergarments. The first was the hoop, worn beneath skirts to give create full bell-like shape. The cumbersome nature of the hoop precluded women from participating in physical activity. Second was the whalebone corset meant to mold women’s bodies into the sought after curvy hourglass silhouette. Tightly laced corsets altered the natural body shape and restricted range of movement. (Click on the above illustrations for a magnified view.) Women who cast off the corset and opted for functional clothing suited to biking, were referred to by a term still with us today — loose women.

Upstanding families forbade their daughters from cycling which only drove them to it, of course. It was a means to meet a beau without the prying eyes of a chaperone. Also, the divide between town and country, diminished, as cycling made it possible to cover greater distances. Cycling moved women past class and gender barriers. It also allowed women to prove that they were up to performing tasks previously male dominated.

A ladies bicycle race through Burton Latimer in 1890s (photo source: Burton Latimer Historical Society)

The weaker sex demonstrated that they weren’t so weak after all. The so long supported structure of acceptable society was being stretched in ways uncomfortable for some. Many men worried  that women would bicycle away from the traditional feminine role. Women new to cycling were warned of possible health complications — bowed legs, heart trouble and varicose veins, to name a few. Who would want to marry one of these New Women with their mannish ways? She’d become a bicycling buddy, and no longer be a delicate flower on a pedestal, to be admired.

Photo source: www.oldbicycle.eu
Photo source: http://www.oldbicycle.eu

I became interested in collecting photos of  Victorian cyclists and soon after developed an interest in learning more about the Women’s Suffrage Movement. It surprised me when these topics intersected. The mid 1800s must have been a time of great awakenings and social change. I can’t help wondering how it affected women and men who embrace change readily and those who don’t.

A future story idea is taking shape in my mind — inner turmoil, conflict with societal and parental expectations and marital complications. A delicious storm of complication is brewing itself into a wonder tale!

Lead Photo Source: The Online Bicycle Museum

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