Where young men were the primary riders of the Penny-Farthing, after bikes became safer with the development of the Safety Bike, women took over. Lacking personal freedom was part of the issues of women in the late 19th century. So as the first wave of feminism kicked into gear, the bicycle became a form of transportation that allowed for women to be independent, allowing for a furthering of their movement.
It’s very difficult to take part in protests when you don’t have any means to get there. And without Skype to call in remotely to rallies and social meetings, the bicycle was essential for women to become an integral part of western society, giving them the means to take part in political and social actions.
Susan B. Anthony, one of the leaders in the feminist movement, said, “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.”
Not only did it help with the woman’s suffrage movement, but it also improved women’s health overall. Frances Willard, the president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, in 1895 wrote a book called How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle. In this book, she praised the experience of learning to ride a bike for its “gladdening effect” on her health. But, as another influential leader in the feminist movement, she quickly tied the bike back to women’s suffrage, using the bike as a call to action for other women, saying that “I would not waste my life in friction when it could be turned into momentum.”
Because the traditional garb for women at the time didn’t bode well with cycling, women cyclists furthered the rise of bloomers, a staple in the feminist movement. Bloomers were an abomination at the time, but in fact look similar to MC Hammer’s Parachute Pants. These bloomers were seen as a symbolic clothing choice of women’s emancipation movement. When compared to what people wear now, it is difficult to see what the fuss was about—as is usually the case when looking into the past.
Women on bicycles became such a symbol of women’s fight for rights that in 1897, when male undergraduates at Cambridge University were showing their disdain for sharing the classroom with women, their choice for an effigy to hang in the town square was a picture of a woman on a bike.