Monday 28 July 2014

The Immoral Bicycle

"Have you ever seen anything more offputting, uglier, meaner than a wench on a bike, wheezing, her face red like a turkey, her eyes reddened by the dust? I haven't ... Respectfully expressed: What a horror! Is there any element of beauty to such a furious dame on wheels? Cycling makes our women haggard and angular, unwomanly from the out- and the inside. Off your bikes, female sex! Or you will no longer enjoy the right to call your sex the fair one!"
unknown journalist (1897)

"Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world." 
Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906)

"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)

This very "toy" represented freedom and became a symbol of feminism, of the fight against restrictions in everyday life ranging from a lack of mobility to the Victorian dress (via). The women's movement of the 1890s and the cycling craze were "inextricably intertwined" (via).
As cycling’s popularity exploded, a new breed of woman was making her mark in the 1890s. “The New Woman” was the term used to describe the modern woman who broke with convention by working outside the home, or eschewed the traditional role of wife and mother, or became politically active in the woman’s suffrage movement or other social issues. The New Woman saw herself as the equal of men and the bicycle helped her assert herself as such. (literally via)
The weak, fragile and delicate woman of the mid 1800s and early 1900s wore steel corsets (leading to faintings, broken ribs, problems with organs etc.) and long, multi-layered skirts which restricted mobility. The bicycle changed female dress ... and mobility. Dress reforms, such as bloomers, had been suggested before but used to be opposed and ridiculed (Postolowski, n.d.). Women cyclists were early activists to challenge "fashion's dictates" (via) and to promote what they considered as "rational dress" and what conservative men called "immoral dress" (via). The battle over the dress was a crucial part of the battle for equality. In 1895, the US-American suffragette Susan B. Anthony asked a reporter: "Why, pray tell me, hasn't a woman as much right to dress to suit herself as a man?" (via).

Doctors warned that bicycling would lead to serious medical conditions such as, for instance, the "bicycle face" that was characterised by "a hard, clenched jaw and bulging eyes", a pale face "often with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes, and always an expression of weariness". It goes without saying that women were particularly susceptible to this "medical condition" (via).

"She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life."
Susan B. Anthony

In 1894, Annie "Londonderry" Cohen Kopchovsky (1870-1947) temporarily left her husband, three children and a job behind and started her journey around the world by bicycle in 15 months. "She started her ride on a 42 pound Columbia women's bicycle and wearing a long skirt. By the time she reached Chicago, however, she traded them in for a 21 pound Sterling men's bicycle and bloomers." (via"I am a journalist and a new woman, if that term means that I believe I can do anyhing that any man can do." (via)

- Postolowski, A. (n.d.) The Freedom Machine: The Bicycle as an Innovation in Gender Equality.
- photographs by Hermann Landshoff (1905-1986) via and via and via and LIFE photograph via
- Don'ts for Women on Bicycles (c. 1895)


  1. Brilliant posting!!!

  2. Hahahaha, the bicycle face! You should see my face now! A million thanks for sharing this!

    1. This rather peculiar approach to women and bicycles does have some entertaining factor, doesn't it? :-) Many, many thanks, Derek!

  3. "Off your bikes, female sex! Or you will no longer enjoy the right to call your sex the fair one!" Hi-lar-i-ous! Manymanymany thanks for sharing!!

    1. Quite bizarre, isn't it? Many thanks for your comment, Erin!

  4. Non-discrimination is a key principle that must be respected in everthing. It's as simple as that... but it's not that easy still. Thanks, Laura! Interesting findings!

    1. A key principle, indeed; I couldn't agree more. Many thanks for commenting, J.!

  5. Lovely, thank you, Laura!

  6. la historia no pasa de moda,....como la bicicleta..