The Bicycle And Women’s Liberation And Suffrage

-This was a blog entry on mine that I thought to share here. I hope you enjoy.

In chatting with a bicycle engineer, I was surprised how little he knew about the historical role of the bicycle. For Americans accustomed to driving everywhere it is easy to place little value on the bicycle. Yet, the bicycle helped to change the world, most especially for women. As commerce shifted away from local artisans and farms to industrialized urban areas in the 1800’s, the bicycle provided the masses with an affordable means to participate in an economy beyond their villages and farms. This was also true in urban areas where keeping draft animals was impractical and costly. The bicycle not only allowed the average person to moved goods but it allowed millions of people to find work and sell their services further than their feet could carry them.

The role of the bicycle in women’s liberation and suffrage movement is greatly unappreciated. In 1880 the high wheel bicycle was a curiosity occasionally seen in Victorian parks. Having tried a big or high wheel bicycle once, I can best describe it as tightrope walking 10 feet off the ground. Once you start wobbling along on a high wheel bicycle, you inevitably realize that you have no idea how to stop this thing without falling off of it. In 1885 the Rover bicycle company introduced the Rover Safety Bicycle, or what anyone today would recognize as the modern bicycle design with a low seat and a rear wheel driven by a bicycle chain. It was called the safety bicycle because unlike the high wheel bicycles you could put your feet on the ground instead of making a perilously acrobatic dismount.

The Rover bicycles allowed women to ride a bicycle and for the first time a middle class lady could go places on her own without a man to drive a car or a horse carriage for her. If you look at photos of women’s suffrage movement you will notice how often bicycles are present. The Rover bicycle design allowed women to leave the house and go as far as they were willing to pedal. At a time when most homes did not have a telephone, the bicycle allowed women to not only meet to organize but also to travel and gather in numbers for protests. The bicycle, as well as the growing interest in health and exercise of the Victorian period, also allowed women to shed some cumbersome layers of women's clothing.

To this day the bicycle continues to bring a measure of freedom to countless people, most especially to poor women whose only other option is to walk. You ladies up for a ride?

Incidentally, it is often said that the many layers of clothing women wore in the Victorian period was a patriarchal means of restricting women. Nonsense, only women of the upper classes wore such elaborate clothing. Simply put, the elaborate dress of both women and men conveyed the message ‘I wear elaborate and expensive clothing that does not permit me to perform manual labor and therefore I am sufficiently wealthy to have servants to do it for me'. Women of the lower classes had to be free to move and perform the necessary labor of per-industrial life and they certainly were not encumbered by their form of dress.
MtnMig MtnMig
36-40, M
5 Responses May 10, 2012

I like stories like this. It's really interesting! Thanks for posting :D

I loved this! Just wonderful to realize how much we owe the bike!<br />
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"Daisy. Daisy. Give me your answer do." <br />
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After enjoying your story, I have been reading more on this subject. I found this statement that made me laugh...<br />
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Many men thought that if females “had” to ride, it should only be with chaperones who could help keep them “off the road to down-hill temptation.”<br />
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The downhills are the most fun part of the ride, most especially the ones into temptation.

Restless, you would have had hot, high-wheel legs! You would not need to hide them under la<x>yers of fancy clothes. woot!

Absolutely delightful!<br />
You are gem for sharing this. I am going to try and find some of those old photos! <br />
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* he forgot the part about loving to feel the wind in our hair *

Thank you, I am flattered. I'm glad that you enjoyed it.