In honour of International Women's Day we celebrate the role of the bicycle and cycling in helping women achieve greater equality throughout history.
If you’ve ever worn a women's’ Victorian-era costume you know first-hand the impracticality of women’s fashions of the time: Corsets that restricted breathing, layers of petticoats and undergarments, floor-length skirts, bustles, collars that restricted head movement. If you’ve worn a men’s costume from that period, then you know that men’s clothing was not nearly so restrictive. What’s to celebrate here? Bicycles have a lot to do with how women got out of that attire and into an era of better equality. When being seen on a bicycle meant that a person was savvy, modern and practical, owning a bicycle conferred status. Cyclists had places to be and important things to accomplish, women needed clothes that didn't encumber movement. Betty Bloomer’s bloomers became a staple piece for keeping legs covered, and “common-sense dressing” replaced the bustle and corset.
As fashion followed the bicycle to practicality, unencumbered women could now ride longer distances from home. Women travelled by bicycle as a form of liberation sprinkled with the need to get things done. Baskets attached to handlebars for the market, messenger bags for supplies, and attachments for carrying children cropped up to meet women’s cycling needs. Frames for women were made smaller and developed to accommodate skirts. The bicycle was the first transportation vehicle to specify designs for women, encouraging women to be adventurous. Such a radical concept was deeply embraced, inspiring Susan B. Anthony’s famous 1896 quote:
"Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance."
A celebration of personal freedom
Imagine if you lived your whole life unable transport yourself on a daily basis except by foot or an expensive, inefficient carriage ride. The world would be pretty limited! But when you balance on a bicycle and feel the wind in your face as you pedal, you are both in charge of your own destiny and experiencing a connection with the outdoors. The allure 200 years ago was a sense of personal freedom previously unknown to many, including the working class, women, and children. Most of us today learned to ride as children, relishing those first moments of whizzing away from our parents at what seemed like impossible speed. The world feels pretty unlimited.
In 200 years, the freedom of cycling may have become a rite of passage for many Westerners, but many around the world are still experiencing this joy for the first time. Bicycles are being introduced as solutions to practical problems in the developing world. The International Bicycle Fund brings bicycles to countries all over the world, such as Vietnam, Cuba, and Ecuador, where locals use the bicycles and set up their own bicycle tour companies. Cycling advocacy is pervasive and far-reaching, with enthusiasts singing the benefits of cycling to everyone from inner-city youth to the deaf. World Bicycle Relief is bringing bicycles to countries in Africa where cost-effective transport is helping people travel to school and work, haul farming equipment, and providing jobs. Check out how Ethel is using a bicycle to realize her dream of becoming a nurse:
Since the beginning, people have wanted to have access to riding a bicycle in relative safety and harmony. Women experienced equality in ways that would have been unknown without the bicycle, and the transportation landscape world-wide has been shaped by cycling advocates. Poor and underprivileged groups have experienced upward mobility thanks to the bicycle. And people in all walks of life from 1817 until now share in those little “wow” moments that every cyclist has at some point that keep us all coming back for more. We will cycle through rain, sleet, snow, fog, and hilly terrain for those wonderful moments!
Happy International Women's Day 2023 to all our wonderful customers!