Over the next decade, millions of Americans of all ages, trades and visual acuities would heed the pedaler’s cry. They would not only live, but would learn to stay majestically, propulsively upright, too. They would start cycling clubs, collect cycling paraphernalia, compose cycling songs, silk-screen cycling art, overhaul female fashion and rewrite the rules of social conduct.[…]
Bicycles also gave birth to our national highway system, as cyclists outside major cities grew weary of rutted mud paths and began lobbying for the construction of paved roads. The car connection goes further still: Many of the bicycle repair shops that sprang up to service the wheeling masses were later converted to automobile filling stations, and a number of pioneers in the auto industry, including Henry Ford and Charles Duryea, started out as bicycle mechanics. So, too, did the Wright brothers. […]
Bicycles allowed young men and women to tool around the countryside unsupervised, and relationships between the sexes grew more casual and spontaneous. With a bicycle at her disposal, a young woman could also venture forth in search of work.
Small wonder that Susan B. Anthony said of cycling, “I think it has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world.”
Bicycles were a feminists’ best friend? Hells yeah.
As cycling’s popularity exploded, a new breed of woman was making her mark in the 1890s. “The New Woman” was the term used to describe the modern woman who broke with convention by working outside the home, or eschewed the traditional role of wife and mother, or became politically active in the woman’s suffrage movement or other social issues. The New Woman saw herself as the equal of men and the bicycle helped her assert herself as such.
As women learned to ride bicycles they not only gained physical mobility that broadened their horizons beyond the neighborhoods in which they lived, they discovered a new-found sense of freedom of movement, a freedom previously circumscribed by the cumbersome fashions of the Victorian era as well as by Victorian sensibilities. The restrictive clothing of the era — corsets, long, heavy, multi-layered skirts worn over petticoats or hoop, and long sleeved shirts with high collars — inhibited freedom of movement and seemed to symbolize the constricted lives women of the 1890s were expected to lead. Such clothing was inimical to even modest forms of exercise or exertion. Cycling required a more practical, rational form of dress, and large billowing skirts and corsets started to give way to bloomers — baggy trousers, sometimes called a divided skirt, cinched at the knee. Although bloomers first appeared decades earlier, and a major social battle was waged over their propriety, the cycling craze practically mandated changes in women’s attire for any woman who wanted to ride.
But, dress reform was not a simple matter of practical adaptation; it invoked and challenged popular perceptions of femininity and became a hotly contested moral issue. Eventually, the battle over dress reform, largely fought on the battlefield of cycling attire, and the popularity of cycling among women, forever altered public perceptions of female athleticism and proper female behavior. The prim and proper gentility expected of women yielded to acceptance that women, too, could exert themselves on the bicycle sensibly dressed for the activity and not only retain, but even enhance, their femininity. Once hidden under yards of fabric, women cyclists shed their old skins and emerged, quite literally, as “new women.”