Tuesday, September 15, 2009

MFM Day 17: You Go Girl

September 15th, 2009: Motor Free Month Day 17

Talk about unintended consequences! Clever men, working to create a bicycle that was easy to use, fun to ride, safe to operate, and inexpensive to own, also created a machine that changed the way Women felt about themselves and their place in society. They created a rolling time-bomb of emancipation.

Song of the Day: Sleater-Kinney, Entertain

The bicycle had been around in various forms for much of the 1800's, but these cycles lacked many of the technological features we take for granted today, and were seen as a novelty item for the well-to-do for the most part. In the 1880's, however, many improvements were made to the bicycle in short order, including the rear-wheel powered chain drive, pneumatic tires, the coasting freewheel, gears, and coaster brakes. As an aside, it's pretty amazing how little has changed in some respects in the intervening 100+ years! Regardless, these inventions, coupled with manufacturing efficiencies that lowered the cost of manufacturing bicycles, ushered in a bicycle craze during the 1890's.

This bicycle craze happened to coincide with the Women's Suffrage movement that was gaining momentum about the same time. One would not think that something so downright frivolous as a bicycle could have such an impact on something so serious as a Woman's right to vote, but I'll quote here from Susan B. Anthony herself:
"I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world," feminist pioneer Susan B. Anthony said in 1896. "It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can't get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood."

It. Was. FUN! That's all! From what I can gather, women rather enjoyed riding bicycles (still do), probably at first simply for the exhilaration of going fast and seeing the country, and then for the freedom of mobility and greater Independence that the cycle afforded them. Naturally the men of the time were threatened by this development -- and those who wished to maintain the status quo rightfully so -- and sought to stop women from partaking in this frivolous and dangerous activity. They tried to tell women that bicycle riding was dangerous and bad for their health. They tried to intimidate female bicycle riders. But it was only a matter of time before they lost that battle.
And the final straw probably was when Women started ditching their dresses for bloomers (trousers) while riding bicycles. For comfort and convenience, from the woman's perspective. To hell and damnation from the men's! It may seem a trivial change from our perspective, but women daring to cast off corsets and long heavy dresses in favor of practical and salaciously ankle-revealing bloomers and blouses was literally a revolution at the time. And it wasn't brought about by letter writing campaigns and protests, it happened because women wanted to ride a bicycle. As simple as that perhaps!

Now I know that there are still inequalities that exist between men and women, and that the fight for equal rights continues to this day and beyond. But I hope my faithful female readers will reserve a special place in their heart for the humble bicycle hanging up in their garage, for who knows where you would be today without it.

Some interesting links:

My sister belongs to this group:

1 comment:

  1. I used to belong to WOMBATS. Our local chapter went rogue a couple of years ago and reformed as our own local club: Alaska Dirt Divas (alaskadirtdivas.blogspot.com). WOMBATS is an organization with a great idea that continues the tradition you wrote about -- get women empowered and out on bikes.