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How the bicycle's invention helped reshape women's rights in America 

A revolutionary ride

click to enlarge Dora Rinehart
  • Dora Rinehart

Remember how you felt the first time you rode a bicycle? The wind was in your hair and you couldn't help but feel you could just keep going faster and faster, and no-one could catch up to you. For many of us, we experienced this at a relatively young age, and as we learned to ride a bike, we gained a visceral experience of freedom.

Today we have all sorts of vehicles that offer that sense of freedom, but in the 19th century, the bicycle was the only personal vehicle, and when people got on the saddle, they controlled their own destiny. However, the appeal of the bicycle in the Victorian Era (1837-1901) went beyond the individual feelings it stimulated. It offered American society different types of activities that were not previously available. To youths the bicycle offered speed and racing. To ordinary citizens it gave a source of pleasure, adventure, exercise and utility. But to women, the bicycle represented something greater: the freedom to move beyond social constraints, and into a new era of equality.

One of the driving principles of the Victorian Era was that there were separate roles for men and women in society, the primary role for women being the mastery of the domestic sphere. When in public, proper women were to be accompanied by other women or their brother, husband or father. Women were expected to wear long skirts with layers of undergarments so that there was no hint of exposing their figure to the public eye. But over the course of the 1800s, the technology exhibited by the bicycle gradually helped erode societal constraints on women's personal freedom.

The first bicycles were not made with women in mind at all. They were constructed by men who designed them for themselves, to fulfill their own desires. A German baron named Karl von Drais created a personal vehicle in 1817 consisting of a frame and two wheels, which he called a Draisienne. He revealed his machine to the public in the summer of that year and it was received with some fanfare, but was considered an oddity and not a practical form of transportation. Women were invited to observe men riding these machines and on occasion a bold woman would give it a try. Though publications ridiculed women who considered owning their own Draisienne and doctors claimed that riding one could cause women to experience "ruptures" or hernias. In the end, the early bike did not catch on with men or women due to its practical limitations.

click to enlarge The safety bicycle became the great equalizer, granting freedom to all riders.
  • The safety bicycle became the great equalizer, granting freedom to all riders.

But in the late 1860s, a new kind of bicycle was developed in Europe and America called by the generic term "velocipede." The velocipede was the first personal vehicle that looked, and functioned, like a bicycle of today — the major difference being that velocipede pedals were affixed to the front wheel. Women were naturally drawn to this new bike form despite the still strongly held notion that women should not ride a bicycle in public. Those women who did start riding in public ignited public discourse regarding what a proper woman might wear when riding such a contraption, and where she might ride it if free to choose.

In the 1870s, men began to design velocipedes that had increasingly large front wheels for greater speed and stability. The high mount, or "ordinary" bicycles, were expensive for the average individual, and they were difficult to ride with their tall, intimidating form. The ordinary design increased the popularity of bicycling, but relegated women to being bystanders. Meanwhile, men formed riding clubs and took long "runs" out into the countryside, returning to male-only clubhouses to work on their bicycles and discuss the day's adventures. The first formal race was held in Boston in 1878, and soon the entire country began to take an interest in bicycling as a technological oddity.

That led to a new form of bicycle being developed in the 1880s, called the "safety bicycle" or "safety." The safety was easier to ride than the high-wheeled bicycles — its lower center of gravity reduced the risk of going over the handlebars and "taking a header" — and it was instantly appealing to women and men of all ages and sizes. The public became so interested that the safety kicked off a huge bicycle craze in America. As well as being easier to control, safety bicycles became less expensive as manufacturers ramped up production to satisfy demand. In effect, the safety bicycle emerged as the great equalizer, the first personal vehicle that offered a sense of freedom to a universal audience.

While the safety bicycle had a universal audience, the technology provided an opportunity for women in particular to break down some of the cultural barriers to equality that existed in late 19th-century American society. Increased steerability, comfort, speed and safety made the new bicycles popular with women who wanted to experience the sense of freedom men had been enjoying on the high-wheeled bicycles. The effect that the safety had on women and riding was so significant that activist and women's suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony was quoted in the New York World in 1896 as saying "I think it has done more to emancipate woman than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman riding by on a wheel. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat..."

As the bicycle craze hit full force in the 1890s, women were equal participants in bicycling whether as a recreational activity or an exercise pursuit. Colorado women began to flood the streets riding bicycles and experiencing their own versions of personal freedom and independence. One Gazette writer in 1890 noted that "There are getting to be quite a number of girl bicyclists in this city. A pair of them rode through Tejon street down town yesterday afternoon and seemed to manage their safeties as well as their brothers might."

click to enlarge Women were escorted on bicycles during an August 1897 Flower Parade on South Cascade Avenue downtown. - COURTESY PIKES PEAK LIBRARY DISTRICT
  • Courtesy Pikes Peak Library District
  • Women were escorted on bicycles during an August 1897 Flower Parade on South Cascade Avenue downtown.

One Colorado woman was particularly eager to shed the constraints on women and show everyone what a woman could accomplish in the saddle. While recovering from a bout of scarlet fever in 1894, Dora Rinehart discovered bicycling, and despite her doctor's warnings, began riding daily for exercise. Within two years she was competing against men in annual national competitions for total miles ridden and number of 100-mile rides (centuries). In 1896, she rode 20 centuries in 20 consecutive days and during that stretch, she rode from Denver to Colorado Springs and back twice in one day. At the end of the year, Rinehart was awarded third place for total mileage ridden (17,173) and first place for number of 100-mile rides (116), gaining the nickname "America's Greatest Cyclienne."

With the increased popularity of bicycling in the mid-1890s, it became the norm for women to go for a ride by themselves or to go on a bicycle date. Co-ed bicycling clubs became popular and women often competed in speed and durability contests. In a relatively short period of time, the safety bicycle had helped revolutionize a women's position in American society. Far from being consigned to the domestic sphere, this new generation of bicycling women was mobile and independent, free to experience everything the bicycle had to offer.

Eric Metzger is the executive director of the McAllister House Museum and a lifelong bicycle rider. He has more than 20 years of experience as a museum professional and an archaeologist.

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