Shed your corset and mount a bike
© Getty Images
May 2022

Shed your corset and mount a bike

By Björn Carstens
Bicycles not only take people from A to B. From a historical perspective, they’ve reduced the dependency of women like hardly any other technical revolution. On the occasion of World Bicycle Day on June 3rd, tomorrow looks back on how pedal-driven technology has made the world a better place to some extent.

“Improper,” “indecent,” utterly “vulgar” – in the 19th century, bike-riding women were facing icy-cold headwinds. If they were merely the targets of verbal abuse, they were lucky. “Bus drivers were not above flicking at me with the whip and cabmen thought it fun to converge upon me from behind,” suffragist Helena Swanwick reported at the end of the 19th century, as Hannah Ross wrote in her book “Revolutions – How Women Changed the World on Two Wheels published in 2021 (see info box). Such adversity, though, did not deter Swanwick, a London women’s rights activist, from cycling because “her life had been greatly enlarged by the activity.” Many women back in those days felt exactly the same gain in quality of life. The bicycle as an emancipation booster!

“The bicycle made a greater contribution to the emancipation of women from upper echelons of society than all the efforts of the women’s movement combined.”

Rosa Mayreder (1858-1938), Austrian writer and women’s rights activist
Ride a bike and gain time

On bicycles, women symbolically rode toward freedom, enlarging their range of motion that previously had been restricted to their obligations at home. Bicycles made it possible for women to save time that they were now able to use for attending to personal needs such as education. Not least, though, cycling was also a symbol of protest against male guardianship because many men did not take kindly to women shedding their domestic shackles, fearing that they would literally ride away from them.

Shed your corset and mount a bike
1896: The ladies of London’s society and their bicycles are meeting at Hyde Park© Getty Images

Incredible, but true: The arguments to discourage women from cycling which the prevailing patriarchy was using at that time could not be topped in terms of absurdity. The so-called bicycle face was publicized as a serious threat to female health in the late 19th century. Women spending too much time in a bicycle seat would have to expect an irreversible disfigurement of their face. Ross quotes a female doctor talking about a cycling “patient”: “The haze, the elusiveness, the subtle suggestion of the face, are gone; it is the landscape without atmosphere.”

Dr. Martin Mendelsohn, a Berlin university professor, didn’t even shy away from touting sordid sexual theories that are utterly ludicrous from today’s perspective but were meant to be a serious argument around the turn of the century. Other times, other manners!

World Bicycle Day on June 3rd

On April 12, 2018, the annual World Bicycle Day, held on June 3rd this year, was established as an official United Nations Day of recognizing the social benefits of using bicycles. The European Bicycle Day has been observed annually since 1998. Both days are intended to highlight the growing traffic burden caused by automobiles and to put greater emphasis on everyday use of bicycles.

However, the campaigners against female cyclists included some women as well. In 1896, for instance, Charlotte Smith of the Women’s Rescue League petitioned the United States Congress to prohibit women from riding bicycles, calling bikes “the devil’s advance agent morally and physically.” Even more bizarre was her claim that cycling turned respectable women into prostitutes.

However, that and other forms of hostility achieved exactly the opposite of what was intended. The discourse that was taking place in the general public actually inspired many women to develop an identity as a self-confident cyclist. Matching the political mainstream at the time, “the discovery of the bicycle for the female coincided with the emancipation history of women,” says Dr. Gudrun Maierhof, a professor of methodological competence and history of social work at Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences.

Resistance and rebellion

Women in Germany initially found themselves exposed to aversion by the world of men as well. Amelie Rother, a journalist, was unwilling to accept that. In Berlin, she was one of the first female cyclists, tired of the homebody existence of the typical big-city woman, and so became an icon of female mobility. Accompanied by hooting and ranting, she rode through the capital city’s streets making the case for more practical clothing while pedaling: “The first thing that belongs into the junk room is the corset. How should the unfortunate chest become wider when it’s stuck in steel armor!”

Shed your corset and mount a bike
A photograph from 1898: Victorian ladies’ fashion was revolutionized by the introduction of the Safety Bicycle. Pedaling women were now wearing wide-leg bloomers© Getty Images

From head to toe, the dictates of fashion for females impeded pedaling. The long, multi-layered skirts made it difficult to get on and off a bike as well as riding it. Consequently, skirts were initially shortened and subsequently replaced by more comfortable models underneath which women would wear wide-leg cycling bloomers. In her book, Ross describes that the bicycle industry gradually began to notice that this new generation of self-confident women was decisively contributing to revenue.

Advertising campaigns were launched, celebrating strong women in “reform clothing.” Hannah Ross cites a salient example: “Adverts for ‘Elliman’s Universal Embrocation Ointment’ muscle rub featured athletic women in knickerbockers unashamedly speeding ahead of male cyclists, including one showing a male rider taking a tumble as a woman pedals past.”

The history of women in bicycle racing
Shed your corset and mount a bike
This wood engraving shows that bicycle races with female participation existed in France as far back as in 1868© Getty Images

Amazingly, cycling races for women were established in Belgium and France as early in the middle of the 19th century. In 1868, the first known all-female bicycle race took place in Bordeaux, with four participants. Officially, though, bicycle racing for women was established much later, in the nineteen-fifties. Most races were initially limited to national levels. 1958 was the first year in which women competed in world championships for bicycle road racing. The Olympics began to admit pedaling females to road cycling events in 1984, followed by track cycling in 1988 and, finally, mountain bike and BMX racing in 2008.

Fascinated, the author tells stories about the first female endurance riders: of Fanny Bullock Workman, who in the eighteen-nineties rode across Europe and a large part of South-East Asia in long skirts and with loads of luggage. Or of Annie Kopchovsky, the first woman to have cycled around the world. Considering that the Latvian immigrant had learned how to ride a bike in Boston just a few weeks before her departure, that’s a really remarkable feat. All of these trailblazers encouraged other women to mount bicycles.

In terms of technology, the invention of the curved top tube in 1885 marked an incisive turning point that increasingly caused the bicycle to evolve into a must-have accessory in the ladies’ world. It and the subsequently developed step-through frame made bicycles even more accessible to women.

Trailblazing female cyclists conquer the world

Toward the end of the 19th century bicycles experienced their first true boom, even though, initially, cycling still tended to be a pastime enjoyed by members of the middle class. A bicycle was something you had to be able to afford. Prices only went down and bikes became a means of mass transportation only around the turn of the century when progressive industrialization enabled mass production. In the nineteen-twenties, droves of female workers would pedal to the factories in the morning and from the nineteen-fifties onward, if not earlier, cycling had become a normal activity for both genders.

However, not all regions in the world were hit by the bike-driven wave of emancipation. In Iran and Afghanistan, women are even completely prohibited from riding bikes in public. In staunchly conservative Saudi Arabia, they’ve been allowed to use bicycles only since 2013 – subject to severe restrictions and only if accompanied by a male. That year also saw the release of “Wadjda,” a movie made by female Saudi Arabian writer and director Haifaa al-Mansour. It tells the story of a young girl dreaming of owning a bicycle.

That’s something many girls and women in Africa can only dream of as well. Numerous initiatives worldwide are aiming to change that. For instance, since it was formed in 2005, World Bicycle Relief has delivered more than 635,000 bicycles to remote regions so that women there can get from A to B faster and use the gain in time for better access to education, healthcare and income opportunities.

Shed your corset and mount a bike
"The fastest girl in the village": Khothalang Leuta is a heroine on two wheels in the African country from which she hails. In Lesotho, women do not usually ride bicycles at all© Tyrone Bradley/Red Bull Content Pool

The story of Khothalang Leuta from Lesotho, who used to be a shy girl living in poverty, is a deeply moving one. On a BMX track in her home town of Roma that was built with donations, Khothalang became part of a cultural transformation because women do not usually ride bicycles in Lesotho. By now, the 18-year-old is celebrating international success and has paved the way for other girls to venture out onto the race track. “I’ve become an inspiration to young girls here. It’s amazing, and I just hope that I can do my best. I know I can,” she said just before traveling to Portugal to participate in the 2021 Red Bull UCI Pump Track World Championships.

“Revolutions – How Women Changed the World on Two Wheels”
Shed your corset and mount a bike

Author Hannah Ross takes her readers on a journey starting with the beginnings of cycling in the 19th century, when women had to overcome incredible resistance, to the present age. The bicycle as a true “feminist freedom machine.”

First published in Great Britain
In 2021 by: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Number of pages: 352
ISBN: 978 1 4746 1137 4
ISBN (eBook) 978 1 4746 1139