The bicycle is in truth the women’s emancipator

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The bicycle is in truth the women’s emancipator

Postby Heracleum Persicum » Tue Jun 09, 2015 1:33 pm


The secret history of 19th century cyclists
The early days of the modern bicycle brought not just joyful escape for the masses but proved a
catalyst for wider social change

It is not easy explaining to family and friends why you are spending a fairly considerable amount of money and a year of your life researching the social impact of the bicycle on late19th century British society. As an uncle of mine, who is himself a keen cyclist, once helpfully asked, “Why does anyone need to know anything about that?”

It can be a difficult question to answer. As with most people involved in academic research, there are many personal reasons why I’m doing it. Growing up with the Somerset Levels on my doorstep has always given me a very strong appreciation of the bicycle as a means of escape, freedom, and when my parent’s taxi service was unavailable, personal transport.

Having such experiences meant that when I stumbled across cycling sources from the 1890s, it was easy for me to find them fascinating, and above all else, easy to relate to. One of the first sources I discovered was the monthly gazette of the Bristol Tricycle and Bicycle Club from 1897. This detailed how members of the club, photographed as stern men possessing suitably stiff upper lips, used their machines to journey off in the countryside, appreciate nature, visit cider farms and engage in dalliances with landladies’ daughters.

The 100 and something years separating myself from those I was researching disappeared when reading accounts like this:

To find oneself miles from anywhere, with the mossiest of banks inviting a loll, a smoke and a quiet chat with congenial clubmates – to experience these things is to taste the real sweets of the cyclists’ existence.

Those men and women in the 1890s were the first generation to experience what we would recognise as ‘modern’ bicycles. In the late 1880s penny farthings began to be replaced by safety bicycles, with diamond frames, chain-driven rear wheels and pneumatic tyres. For the vast majority of the population who did not own horse-drawn vehicles, purchasing a bicycle meant that for the first time they owned their own personal means of longer-distance transportation.

There is a simple pleasure in researching the clear delight people felt possessing a machine which could take them to places previously unimaginable. As a contributor to this newspaper wrote in 1895:

We have had many pleasures in the way of travelling, but we have never yet experienced such exhilarating enthusiasm or such complete recreation. What once was impossible has become possible, and distance is no longer the barrier to the refreshment of country life or contact with kindred spirits.

Daisy Bell song
Harry Dacre’s popular song Daisy Bell, or Bicycle Built for Two, was written in 1892. Photograph: Public
However, with time I have realised that researching this topic can go further than exploring how bicycles improved day-to-day lives. Running alongside this story is a much larger tale of how the activities of those men and women who first took to cycling culminated in bigger changes to society as a whole.

One unexpected way it did this was in the field of genetics. For the majority of those living in rural areas, owning a bicycle dramatically increased the number of potential marriage partners, as for the first time they possessed their own means of travelling beyond their local communities. The widening of gene pools which resulted from this process means that the biologist Steve Jones ranks the invention of the bicycle as the most important event in recent human evolution.

However, the most noticeable social change brought about by the bicycle was in the lives of women. At first, most female cyclists were from middle-class backgrounds, but as the price of bicycles decreased as the 1890s progressed, it became increasingly possible for working-class women to purchase machines.

As the ranks of female cyclists grew, conservative opinion which stated the ‘unbecomingness’ of a woman being sat astride a machine which she propelled with her legs began to be overridden. Self-powering a bicycle and travelling where you wished was both a symbol of, and means of achieving, freedom and emancipation. As one female cyclist stated in 1899:

The bicycle is in truth the women’s emancipator. It imparts an open-air freedom and freshness to a life hithertofore cribbed, cabined and confined by convention. The cyclists have collided with the unamiable Mrs Grundy (a voice for conservative opinion in the period) and ridden triumphantly over her prostrate body.

Of course, the bicycle did not remove conservative notions of appropriate womanly behaviour overnight. However, its contribution to both improving women’s everyday lives and challenging wider societal understandings has long been recognised to have been hugely significant.

It is difficult to think of another invention which has done, and has the potential to do, so much to both meet individual needs for liberation, enjoyment and freedom while at the same time bringing about changes which benefit society as a whole. I am sure most people reading this will agree that this is a tale which belongs as much to the present as the past. It is certainly my hope that telling the story of the bicycle’s original impact on our society can do something to shift wider perceptions of cyclists today.

In the words of Eric Hobsbawm:

If physical mobility is an essential condition of freedom, the bicycle has probably been the greatest single device for achieving what Marx has called the full realisation of being human invented since Gutenberg, and the only one without obvious drawbacks.

Or, in HG Wells’ much-quoted remark:

Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.

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Re: The bicycle is in truth the women’s emancipator

Postby Simple Minded » Tue Jun 09, 2015 2:09 pm


Thanks! Very true. Where I grew up was rural, 1/4 to 1/2 mile between houses was not unusual. Rinky dink convenient store was a mile away. Pop machine at the migrant camp was 3/8 mile away. Nearest town was 4 miles away.

As kids, we thought getting a bicycle meant autonomy, freedom, and opportunity. A much larger chunk of the world was now within our grasp, waiting to be explored and conquered. An incredible horizon multiplier!!!

Now I think, for most kids, a smart phone is the equivalent.

I recall a friend from Arkansas saying the automobile was the best thing that ever happened to Arkansas, it greatly reduced incest.
Sometimes other people "trigger" me. More often than not though, I do it to myself.
Kinda like Marxist sex.
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Re: The bicycle is in truth the women’s emancipator

Postby noddy » Wed Jun 10, 2015 4:54 am

oh, emancipator, my mistake, cough.

more seriously - a dutch girl i knew made a simmilar statement about the place she grew up, that the urban density allowed a pushbike to get anywhere easily and was all you needed.

as an australian living in the outer burbs or rural areas - not so much, a pushbike is just an action sports tool, you cant go anywhere on it.
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Re: The bicycle is in truth the women’s emancipator

Postby Azrael » Tue Jul 28, 2015 5:00 am

You are the bicycle. -- Rumi
cultivate a white rose
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