I just read this fascinating book by Hannah Ross about the history of woman and bicycling. I had known some tidbits about how bicycling had helped in the early days of the Women’s liberation and suffrage movements, including this famous quote from Susan B Anthony:
“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”.
But I learned a lot more details in this book. Bicycling helped usher in the “rational dress” movement, where Women were no longer expected to appear in public with voluminous petticoats, long skirts, and corsets that made it hard to breath. These were dangerous on bicycles, for example skirts can cause accidents by wrapping around cranks. More practical clothing gave women more freedom of movement. It is hard to believe from our perspective now how controversial this common-sense idea was towards the end of the 19th century. Bicycles also gave women the freedom to go longer distances- unchaperoned. They were employed in getting to suffrage meetings and distributing pamphlets. The details of the many ways this changed society make very good reading. This kind of change is still ongoing today in parts of the world where women have less freedom.
I also knew a bit about the early history of Women’s bicycle racing, including the great Tillie Anderson. But there are again a lot more interesting details in the book. I had not known that some women actually raced on “penny farthings” (high wheelers) before the advent of the modern “safety” bicycle design. Another intriguing fact is that bike races involving males in the early days were often very long, such as the famous six day races on velodromes (including Madison Square garden in New York). The men rode for many hours a day and got by on little sleep, so these were more contests of survival than races. In contrast, while the women did multi-day races, they were less hours per day, so they really raced, making them a more exciting spectator event.
There is also a very good documentary on trailblazing women in bicycling here, hosted by one of my favorites, Jenny Graham, who holds the woman’s record for traveling around the world on a bicycle, and whose enthusiasm is irrepressible.
Sadly, Women’s bike racing is still treated as a second-class sport, with much lower compensation to the athletes and less high-quality events to participate in. The excuse is often given that it is less popular so it generates less revenue. But Hannah points out the example of Women’s’ cyclocross (a type of racing that is a fan favorite in Europe in the wintertime, involving a combination of bicycling and often dismounting to handle obstacles, often on muddy courses). The races for women were often scheduled in bad time slots for viewing. When they were instead rescheduled just before the male races, their popularity soared, rivaling that of the male races. Hannah covers the inequities between male and female bike racing in detail in the book. Similar situations were fixed through considerable effort in other sports like tennis, I’d like to see them addressed in bicycling. We’re just finishing up the Tokyo Olympics, where there was much thrilling action in both women’s’ and men’s’ bicycling, on the road and on the track. No one is going to convince me that the women’s races were any less exciting to watch than the men’s.
I highly recommend this book. The pioneering women in bicycling- touring, racing, and changing society- deserve to be remembered.