Yes, women were traveling on wheels long before bicycles. They blazed west in covered wagons, lugging their kin and piles of chores. In 1888, Bertha Benz made her first solo ride in her Patent Motorwagen No.3. But automobiles were affordable only to the few for years to come. By the 1890s, it was the outlandish Victorian Era Bicycles that finally liberated the “New Woman” with solo transportation and Athletic Bloomers.
Millions of bicycles were on the road and a new culture was developing around them. Women were gaining physical mobility, physical strength and redefining conventional notions of femininity.
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton declared “woman is riding to suffrage on a bicycle.” The line was reprinted in newspapers across America. Anthony said of the Victorian Era bicycle: “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.”
The literacy rate among women was rising. Intelligent ladies magazines like Godey’s were read by millions of women. Female artists like Mary Cassatt illuminated the transformation of women into independent beings. Women pushed against traditional roles with many choosing careers at the expense of traditional roles within marriage. And many of them were riding bicycles into their new worlds.
An article printed in the Nebraska Courier in 1895, succinctly describes the changes that were helped by the Victorian Era bicycle and the public’s reactions to them. L.A.W. Bulletin signed it. (Does that sound like a female author’s pen name to you?)
“It really doesn’t matter much where this one individual young lady is going on her wheel. It may be that she’s going to the park on pleasure bent, or to the store for a dozen hairpins, or to call on a sick friend at the other side of town, or to get a doily pattern of somebody, or a recipe for removing tan and freckles. Let that be as it may. What the interested public wishes to know is, where are all the women on wheels going? Is there a grand rendezvous somewhere toward which they are all headed and where they will some time hold a meet that will cause this wobbly old world to wake up and readjust itself?”
…“Is there a grand rendezvous somewhere toward which they are all headed and where they will sometime bold a meet that will cause this wobbly old world to wake up and readjust itself?”
Bloomers appeared in The Water-Cure Journal, the popular women’s health journal, in October 1849. The new garment was in response to the cumbersome fashions of the time that hindered women from activity and compromised health. Bloomers could pinch the popularity of tight corsets. In February 1851 Elizabeth Smith Miller wore her bloomers, a.k.a. Turkish Dress. Amelia Bloomer took a liking to the garment and published it in her journal, The Lily. By 1851 Bloomers were the craze.
By the time Victorian Era Bicycles became the rage, the bloomer was adopted as a new and improved athletic garment. Yes, they were the yoga pants of their day.
Nebraska Courier 1895 cont’d:
“Some people say she is riding to her earthly disgrace and eternal destruction. Others say her chances of final salvation depend on the sort of a costume she wears, and whether or not she also rides on Sunday.
The Dress Reformers are positive she is slipping into an era of freedom from the bondage of garments that have so long shackled and tortured her.
The bicycle craze caused a fury in medical circles as well. Not everyone extolled the health benefits of cycling. The public debate surrounding the negative consequences on the health of female bicyclists created a mushroom cloud.
Many people believed that females were inherently weaker than men, hence more prone to medical disasters. They warned of everything from cycling accidents to unhinged nerves caused by the constant vibration of the bicycle. And do not forget, there was “bicycle face.” That was the hardened, painful expression caused by looking forward in a state of constant anxiety.
Perhaps worst of all, was the inevitable damage to the female organs. Dr. Arabella Kenealy among many physicians of her day wrote that bicycling would make a woman more mannish and inevitably limit her ability to have children. Worst of all, it was believed that bicycling could stimulate carnal instincts due to the friction of the saddle.
Annie Londonderry Kopchovsky became a symbol for the New Woman on her bike. She had only a few days of bicycling experience before setting out to cycle around the world. She was 23, an immigrant mother of three children and a housewife.
She left her home in Boston in 1894 wearing long skirts and pedaling a 42-pound Columbian Bicycle. Her goal was to demonstrate the depth of women’s strength, both physically and mentally. She returned to her home 15 months later, transformed into a New Woman in terms of her physicality, experience and endurance.
Nebraska Courier, 1895:
“If he (St. Paul) were on earth today with his old-fashioned, slow-going notions of the gentle sex, some new woman, mounted on her steed of steel, would run over him the first time he dared to wander outside of his own gate.
The bicycle is a pretty big thing. And the end is not yet.”
According to WomensSportsFoundation.org, some sports organizations (World Surf League, Wimbledon and World Major Marathon) have finally come to parity for men and women. That said, College and professional sports continue to provide unequal funding for women.
Total prize money for the 2014 PGA Tour, over $340 million, is more than five times that of the new-high for the 2015 LGPA tour $61.6 million. Similar discrepancies exist throughout professional sports.
For a WNBA player, in the 2015 season, the minimum salary was $38,913, the maximum salary was $109,500, and the team salary cap in 2012 was $878,000. For NBA players in the 2015-2016 season, the minimum salary is $525,093, the maximum salary is $16.407 million, and the team salary cap is an all-time high of $70 million.
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