“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling…I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride on a wheel. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”
– Susan B. Anthony, suffragette
Australians are familiar with the tyranny of distance – in a country as large as ours it isn’t unusual to feel isolated and insecure without a cheap and reliable form of transport. It was in the 1890s that the bicycle as we know it today was introduced. The ‘safety bicycle’ was initially written off by the riders of the penny-farthing as being for women and old men, due to its inherent stability and ease of steering. These bicycles quickly got cheaper and more ubiquitous.
It’s not surprising that demand for bikes grew so quickly. There is barely a human on this planet who doesn’t like going fast, or getting where they need to go. In a world free of cars, where your own feet or those of a horse are the only other modes of transport, jumping on a bicycle must have felt incredibly empowering. A woman on a bicycle could move around the world in more safety and with more speed than had ever been previously possible. A woman on a bicycle occupies more physical space, she can visit more people and get more done. Every lady who has ever buzzed about town to do her shopping knows the feeling of freedom and power that riding a bicycle imparts.
Yet ladies back in the 1800s wore clothes more suited to needlework than to chain rings, and it was the desire to make bike riding safer for woman that led to the push for women’s dress to become less cumbersome. The Rational Dress Society was founded in England in 1888 and it wasn’t long before layers of petticoats and skirts gave way to the bloomer, a baggy pair of pants cinched at the knee and named after Amelia Bloomer, an American suffragette who was inspired by the pants worn by fashionable Turkish ladies in Istanbul. When this garment was first worn in the US in the 1850s it caused widespread scandal and great debate, but by the turn of the century it was generally acceptable attire for all but the most posh of female cyclists.
END OF PART I