On May 2 2023, a Reddit account shared a post to the subreddit r/todayilearned (“TIL“) about the role bicycles purportedly played in women’s liberation (and the related decline in popularity of long skirts and corsets):
The post’s submitter used the “link” format, and as such, used a long and descriptive title:
TIL [today I learned] that the invention of bicycles was fundamental to the early women’s liberation movement. Bicycles promised freedom to women long accustomed to relying on men for transportation. It was also the main reason corsets and long skirts fell out of fashion in the early 20th century.
An included link directed users to the website of the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM). Its “About” page noted that the NWHM was an “online museum,” created to rectify “major omissions of women in history books” and in American public schools:
Founded in 1996, the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) is an innovative online museum dedicated to uncovering, interpreting, and celebrating women’s diverse contributions to society. A renowned leader in women’s history education, the Museum brings to life the countless untold stories of women throughout history, and serves as a space for all to inspire, experience, collaborate, and amplify women’s impact—past, present, and future. We strive to fundamentally change the way women and girls see their potential and power.
The NWHM fills in major omissions of women in history books and K-12 education, providing scholarly content and educational programming for teachers, students, and parents. We reach more than four million visitors each year through our online content and education programming and, in early 2023, we will mount our first physical exhibit at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in downtown Washington, D.C. The Museum is a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)3. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and visit us at womenshistory.org.
The Reddit post linked directly to a NWHM article, “Pedaling the Path to Freedom.” Initially published in May 2012, it was updated in June 2017 and first addressed the introduction of bicycles:
Bicycles took American consumers by storm in the 1890s. At the turn of the century, trains, automobiles, and streetcars were growing in use in urban areas, but people still largely depended on horses for transportation. Horses, and especially carriages, were expensive and women often had to depend on men to hitch up the horses for travel. While horses were cheap to maintain in rural areas, owning a horse in a city was expensive, with extra costs for housing in stables and the upkeep of the animals. Surrounded by inefficient and expensive forms of travel, bicycles arrived in cities with the promise of practicality and affordability. Bicycles were relatively inexpensive and provided men and women with individual transportation for business, sports, or recreation.
A separate section addressed bicycles and women’s fashion:
The first wave of the women’s rights movement was well underway by the peak of the American bicycle craze in the 1890s. The bicycle, in many ways, came to embody the spirit of change and progress that the women’s rights movement sought to engender. In 1895, Frances Willard, leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, published a book entitled A Wheel within a Wheel: How I learned to Ride the Bicycle, which chronicled her quest to learn to ride the bicycle late in life to aid her deteriorating health. Although she died just three years later, Willard’s reflections on bicycle riding encouraged others. She decried the cumbersome and restrictive fashions of the day and called for more sensible and practical fashion for female bicyclists.
Women soon found that the traditional dress of corsets, bustles, and long voluminous skirts impeded the supposed ease of bicycle travel. As Willard foreshadowed, this prompted a change in women’s fashion including lighter skirts, bloomers (sometimes known as divided skirts), or even trousers to allow for a less cumbersome ride …
Wikipedia maintained an entry titled “Bicycling and feminism,” and the topic made frequent news appearances through the years. In May 2008, CNN republished a Mental Floss listicle titled “Women’s lib arrived on bicycles.”
A November 11 2011 article by The Guardian, “How the bicycle became a symbol of women’s emancipation,” focused on bicycles and women in Britain. It began:
One hundred years [before 2011], Alice Hawkins, a suffragette, cycled around Leicester promoting the women’s rights movement, causing outrage by being one of the first ladies to wear pantaloons in the city. During the fight to win the vote the bicycle became not only a tool but also a symbol for the emancipation of women.
The American civil rights leader, Susan B Anthony, wrote in 1896:
“I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood.”
In June 2014, The Atlantic published “How the Bicycle Paved the Way for Women’s Rights,” excerpting archival news reports about bicycles and women’s suffrage:
The [bicycle] craze was meaningful, especially, for women. Both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are credited with declaring that “woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle,” a line that was printed and reprinted in newspapers at the turn of the century. The bicycle took “old-fashioned, slow-going notions of the gentler sex,” as The Courier (Nebraska) reported in 1895, and replaced them with “some new woman, mounted on her steed of steel.” And it gave women a new level of transportation independence that perplexed newspaper columnists across the country. From The San Francisco Call in 1895:
It really doesn’t matter much where this one individual young lady is going on her wheel. It may be that she’s going to the park on pleasure bent, or to the store for a dozen hairpins, or to call on a sick friend at the other side of town, or to get a doily pattern of somebody, or a recipe for removing tan and freckles. Let that be as it may. What the interested public wishes to know is, Where are all the women on wheels going? Is there a grand rendezvous somewhere toward which they are all headed and where they will some time hold a meet that will cause this wobbly old world to wake up and readjust itself?
The Guardian revisited the topic in June 2015, with “Freewheeling to equality: how cycling helped women on the road to rights.” It first discussed an archival photograph then-recently seen on Twitter; a photo caption for which read:
Male undergraduates at Cambridge University protest against the full admission of female students by hanging an effigy of a ‘New Woman’ on a bicycle from a window in Market Square, circa 1897.
A 2015 article in The Gettysburg Historical Journal (“The Bicycle Boom and Women’s Rights,” PDF) examined the role of the bicycle in women’s liberation at length. In 2019, a civil engineering and transportation research firm published a piece entitled “Women’s Bikes: An Intersectional Look at the History of Women and their Bicycles.”
One section specifically addressed bicycles and women’s attire:
The physical requirements of riding a bicycle—as well as the very real risk of getting skirts caught in the gears and wheels—provided women a reason to shed restrictive corsets and heavy skirts. As most cycling clothing was designed for men, innovative and intrepid women designed and patented their own cycling attire. Their wearable technology used pulley and button systems to quickly lift skirts out of the way of the gears and spokes. Other pioneering women designed bicycle umbrellas and locks, innovations that improved cycling for everyone.
After the industrial revolution brought thousands of working-class women into urban factories, the proper social and cultural role of women was increasingly brought into question. As the safety bicycle—itself a product of industrialization—grew in popularity, so too did anxieties about ‘the Woman Question.’ The notion of women riding bicycles in trousers triggered a moral panic, as proponents of gender norms feared unchaperoned bicycling was a slippery slope to sex work. As more women turned to trousers for safe and comfortable biking attire, their symbolic resistance to restrictive clothing helped legitimize trouser-wearing more generally.
A May 2 2023 post to Reddit’s r/todayilearned held that “the invention of bicycles was fundamental to the early women’s liberation movement,” and the bicycle “was also the main reason corsets and long skirts fell out of fashion in the early 20th century.” The role of bicycles in women’s liberation and suffrage was frequently examined, leading to cyclical coverage (so to speak) in the media.