Riding the Bicycle to Equality

How redesigning a tool led to societal change

Sue Macy's phenomenal book — Wheels of Change — talks about the history of bicycle and how it ushered in a new era of equality. Any time the suffrage movement comes up we think of Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Jane Addams... but rarely does one talk about the role of the bicycle.

Annie Londenberry with a bicycle on a ye

“The bicycle did more to emancipate women than anything in the world.” —Susan B Anthony

Evolution of Bicycles over the years.

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People in the 1800s were obsessed with bicycles. By mid 19th century, the Penny-Farthing was the most famous iteration of the bicycle. The Penny-Farthing was named so, because it’s vastly disparate wheel sizes resembled the coins of the era, a penny and a farthing.

 

Apart from looking downright ridiculous, these cycles were unwieldy, a challenge to maneuver, and actually extremely dangerous owing to their unstable center of gravity; hitting even the smallest of bump in the path would send the rider over the front in what was known as the ‘header.'

The Penny-Farthing was extremely difficult for women riders. It was in fact impossible to ride the Penny-Farthing while wearing the in-fashion giant hoop skirts of late 1800s.

Big poofy giant hoop skirts of late 1800s

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In 1885 came John Kemp Starly, with his version of the bicycle. He was fed up with the impractical design of the Penny-Farthing, and released his invention of the “Rover safety bicycle” which was basically the first incarnation of what we now consider the modern bicycle. It had two 26 inch wheels, a diamond-shaped frame, and a rear drive chain system. Bicycles became smaller, safer, and more practical; and America loved them! Men and women alike flocked to these “noiseless metal steeds” in droves.

Two million cycles were sold in 1897 alone. Even though these new modern bicycle designs were becoming enormously popular, and the drop frame construction did make it safer and easier to ride, biking in a big, flowing skirt was still impractical. Sue Macy in her book says, “At that time many women dressed in voluminous skirts with lots of whips underneath and ruffles and that was not practical on a bicycle.”

The improved bicycle design helped usher in a “rational dress movement” among women, which advocated moving away from uncomfortable, restrictive dresses.

In the 1850s “Bloomers” gained popularity. Bloomers are baggy undergarments that were more comfortable and practical under hoop skirts.

 

With the growing popularity of bicycles though the late 19th century, they came back with a vengeance and were adopted by prominent suffragettes at the time.

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Woman in pants on a bicycle

This change in design and the mass adoption of bicycles significantly helped the feminist movement of the day. It changed the modes of dress and gave women increased mobility, but more importantly it gave them a sense of autonomy. In 1890 just five years after the introduction of the safety bicycle, the National American Woman Suffrage Association was formed with the express purpose of lobbying state-to-state for women's right to vote. Two of its founders, Susan B Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are quoted as saying that "...woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle" and that's exactly what happened in 1920.

Annie Londonderry

In 1894, after hearing two wealthy Boston men bet ten thousand dollars that a woman couldn't travel around the globe on a bicycle, Annie Londonderry, a 5 foot 3, 100-pound housewife that had never ridden a bike before, took on the challenge and with only a pearl-handled revolver and change of underwear, braved the desert, wars, and collisions with pigs on her journey around the world, which she completed in 1895.

Londonberry Route around the world on a