Above: 📷 Courtesy of thebarking.com
By columnist Diana Pearson
Whether for exercise, budget, enjoyment, or out of necessity, bicycling is a great way to travel. It’s good exercise, reduces your carbon footprint, and is efficient and freeing. But did you know that the bike is also a symbol of feminism, and played a role in the advancement of women’s rights? You might be shocked to hear that bicycling used to be seen as an inappropriate activity for women, and that this social tension paved the way for women’s emancipation in North America.
In late 1800s America, bicycling was considered a rich man’s leisure activity. This all changed in 1887 when a new bike design came out, which had equal-width wheels (instead of one big wheel at the front), a smoother ride, and a change in chain position. These changes made bicycling more accessible to women, and soon one third of the membership of the League of American Wheelmen were women (22,000 women by 1897). This had a snowball effect on women’s attire and attitudes; women at that time were expected to wear corsets which were uncomfortable, damaging to abdominal organs, and made it hard to breathe deeply, so fashions began to change to suit biking needs. Women were also expected to wear skirts, but these were a nuisance as they could get caught in the bike chains while riding. So women began wearing pants (“bloomers”), rejecting corsets, and rejoicing in the freedom of bicycling. The derogatory term “loose” (slur for a woman who’s had many sexual partners) in part refers back to this time period.
You might be wondering, what does this have to do with sex? Well, the fear of women’s sexuality is fierce, and the conservatives of the time didn’t like that women were riding bikes. A common social anxiety of the period was that the vibrations of the bike seats would, when ridden, ignite the sexual fires of women. Innocence, purity, and chastity were common values which lingered from the Victorian era. Bicycles wheels were cogs in the resistance machine, an outspoken rally against these restrictive values. It was unladylike and immoral for women to have sex outside of marriage, and masturbation was a big no-no. One Tennessee doctor warned that women could experience up to four orgasms in one hour of bicycling (I’m not sure what kinds of bikes they were riding, but I’d like to get one). The editor of the Dominion Medical Monthly warned that “Bicycle riding produces in the female a distinct orgasm.” Other doctors claimed with disguised language that biking could cause hygiene problems and “gynecological consequences” (these were false arguments). These worries are why women were expected to ride side-saddle on horses. According to the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas, “The angle of the saddle could cause women to become aware of sexual feelings before marriage and so awaken in her carnality and unfeminine sexual desire.” The awakening of women’s sexuality was unladylike, and so some saddles and bike seats were made with holes meant to minimize the arousal of women.
Imagine the scenario: women, racing around growing industrial American cities, refusing to wear corsets, discovering freedom from chaperones, finding self-reliance and adventure. These were the “new women”—and in Canada, “cultured women.” It is a glorious scenario to envision. Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) an influential women’s rights advocate, remarked that female cyclists encouraged women to assert themselves with their clothing, their voices, their opinions, and eventually gained momentum which led to them gaining the right to vote.
But not all women agreed that the newfound freedom given by bicycles was a desirable one. Some conservative women’s advocate groups were very worried that bicycling would encourage unladylike, immoral behaviours. One of these groups was the Boston-based Women’s Rescue League, which was led by Charlotte Smith. In 1896 they issued a public service announcement that the “bicycle craze by women” was “indecent and vulgar” and caused “disease and vice… peculiar to women.” They seemed to fear that women would become sterile as a consequence of biking (considered a vice), or become reckless, indecent harlots and succumb to disease. Although they meant well and aimed to improve women’s health (by treating sexually-treated diseases and providing shelter for women) their efforts may have actually promoted the social, sexual, and cultural censorship of women. Clearly, their efforts to discourage women from biking were not successful, and today we have the freedom to ride.
Women today have more social, political, sexual, and cultural freedoms. Biking was surely not the only factor at play, but it played a positive role in changing gender and sexual values as industrial America developed. We have this to be thankful for. So ladies, next time you’re pedaling your way up Albert St., coasting along the Parkway Trail, or shredding down the side of Mt. Benson, remember that riding a bike is a symbolic act of resistance and activism. And, if you’re feeling frisky, make sure you lean forward on that seat as you coast gleefully over those happy bumpy patches of gravel for a vibrational thrill. Just what the doctor ordered!
One of Diana’s passions is to encourage sex-positivity and open, shameless conversations about sex and sexuality through her column, “Dirtyin’ The Nav.” Her future path includes completing a Masters in Gender Studies and Social Justice, and teaching pleasure-based sex education. She is a non-fiction writer and a musician. As a copy editor, she revels in making The Nav look pretty.