Although today in the West it seems natural for us to see women riding bicycles down the street, this hasn’t always been the case. Our ancestors fought for the right to ride. In 1896, American feminist activist Susan B. Anthony wrote that “[the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world.” But what did she mean by that? Here’s a short history lesson!
A Symbol of Independence
The ”velocipede” appeared on the European market in the 1860s. Women from upper-class backgrounds were the first to take advantage of this new invention. It was considered a symbol of elegance and modernity because it was very expensive at the time.
By climbing onto a velocipede, women gained independence. For the first time, they had access to a method of individual transport that allowed them to distance themselves from the authority of their husband or father. Of course, this development in the emancipation of women was viewed unfavorably by certain men. They found this activity to be immoral for the women of the time.
Cycling, Bad for Your Health?
Doctors began to publish “scientific” theories to prevent women from cycling. The velocipede was blamed for all ills. Dubbed the “sterility machine”, it was also accused of causing ulcers, hemorrhages, illnesses and inflammation in the “weaker sex”. Men also feared that the velocipede would distract women from their conjugal duties, as it was thought that mounting it led to sexual pleasure!
Despite public opinion, women were determined not to abandon this revolutionary practice. The scientific theories were quickly refuted.
Goodbye Corsets and Petticoats!
During the 1880s-1890s, the velocipede, which up until then had been used almost exclusively by the rich, was replaced by the modern bicycle. The new invention’s democratic price made it accessible to all social classes, and rates of cycling rapidly increased.
But women’s clothing of the day was not adapted for cycling. Women wore tight corsets, and their long dresses easily got caught in the wheels. To pedal more comfortably, female cyclists traded in these cumbersome garments for baggy pants called “bloomers”. At first, this new fashion was considered rather daring! Thanks to the bicycle, the female dress code evolved, and wearing pants caught on among women.
A Still-Relevant Symbol of the Emancipation of Women
In certain countries, cycling is still forbidden for women, and the right to ride remains an everyday battle. In Cairo, female cyclists are accused of riding in an “indecent posture”, and are exposed to sexual harassment. In Iran, a woman on a bicycle is still synonymous with debauchery. In Saudi Arabia, women only gained the right to ride bicycles in 2013, and they are still required to be accompanied by a man.
At the end of the 19th century, the invention of the bicycle allowed European and American women to fight prejudice, discover new horizons, leave their homes and enjoy more liberty. The fight for the right to ride continues in the modern-day Middle East. Numerous initiatives have been created to support women in their struggle. My Stealthy Freedom encourages Iranian women to post pictures of themselves on bicycles on their Facebook and Instagram pages (see below), Women’s World Wide Web raises funds to support female cycling in Afghanistan, and Go Bike organizes bike rides around the Egyptian capital. The bicycle’s role in the emancipation of women is not yet over!