WRITTEN BY HOLLY CHISHOLM + PHOTOS BY ADRIEN DE BONTIN
Today bicycles are a daily part of life, but it wasn’t always like that. Fearless females had to blaze a trail for women to ride freely.
I recently got my first tattoo after years of wanting one: a small black bicycle on my left ankle. I got it as a small act of rebellion from my conservative upbringing (typical), and also because I couldn’t think of a better symbol for the things I love: design, efficiency, the outdoors and feminism.
Bicycles aren’t necessarily what most people think of in reference to feminism— especially if you grew up with a “girl” bike, decked out with pink flowers, a wicker basket and tassel handlebars like I did.
But bicycles were one of the key factors spurring women’s suffrage in the 1890s. As Susan B. Anthony, one of the movement’s leaders, put it: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel...the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
When the bicycle became popular in the late 1800s, women experienced—for the first time in history—cheap, accessible mobility. Before this, the only way to travel long distances was by horse, which most women only had access to through their husbands or fathers—meaning that women had to ask permission to travel. With the advent of the bicycle, women could suddenly go wherever they pleased without the accompaniment (and supervision) of a man.
Bicycles were also pivotal in changing views about what a woman should wear. By necessity, women could no longer wear the stiff petticoats of the Victorian era; they were highly impractical, as the skirts would get caught in a bike’s wheels. Women began wearing bloomers, and even—gasp!—showing their ankles while riding bikes. Almost overnight, women started doing what men had been allowed to do for hundreds of years: wear clothes that were practical and comfortable for their day-to-day needs.
Perhaps most importantly, the bicycle was a symbol of women’s changing role in society. The Courier, published in Nebraska, commented on this change in 1895, claiming that women of the time had been replaced with “some new woman, mounted on her steed of steel.”
As with nearly every new liberty that women experience, many critics (mostly men) of the time viewed bicycling as immoral, sexual and even a health risk to women. As a writer for the Chicago Sunday Herald in 1891 put it: “I think the most vicious thing I ever saw in all my life is a woman on a bicycle... I had thought that cigarette smoking was the worst thing a woman could do, but I have changed my mind.”
And, not surprisingly, there are still women today facing shame and threats for riding bikes. BuzzFeed’s Jeremy Singer-Vine recently conducted a study in several major American cities that found that the ratio of women to men who use bike-share programs is 1:3. Why do fewer women ride bikes? One reason is their fear of sexual or street harassment. The 2010 Women’s Cycling Survey found “stranger attacks” were a worry among 13% of women cyclists.
Perhaps that is why I insist on biking to work. And why I decided to get my bicycle tattoo. Every time I ride, I am exercising a freedom that inspired countless women before me on their journey to equality, while also refusing to let fear of harassment keep me from traveling in the way that I want.
I’ll admit, bicycling does make me feel a bit “vicious.” And there isn’t a better feeling in the world.