For Victorian women, the invention of the so-called safety bicycle represented nothing short of a revolution. It’s the 1890s and womankind is allowed to hop on a saddle and pedal towards greater independence. This era, known as the ‘bicycle craze’, marked a crucial point in the history of emancipation.
The bicycle craze has been celebrated ever since and it surely deserves all the cheers. Ladies got permission to move in the public space as unaccompanied individuals without being perceived as unmannerly – which was something unprecedented before. But with anything new that comes to society, there’s usually a surge of discomfort, resentment or even outrage, and ladies’ bicycling was no exception.
The public debate revolved around careless ‘scorchers’ and the danger that cyclists supposedly posed to pedestrians. When it came to women on two wheels, people got even more concerned. What does a cycling lady wear? Where does she ride? How does she behave and who does she talk to? All these questions were answered with one simple solution: domestic cycling.
Simply put, when it came to women’s cycling, society carefully prevented things from getting too funky. Cycling was presented as something that not only helped women maintain their domestic role but even enhanced it. What a great means of being more effective in your housewife duties, right? Now you can run your errands faster or take the family for ice cream on two wheels!
According to Phillip Gordon Mackintosh and Glen Norcliffe, there is one famous book that presents a great example of how women, while allowed to ride a bike, still had to obey the socially constructed rules of womanliness: Frances Willard’s A Wheel Within a Wheel. In a way, it was a women’s cycling manual, instructing ladies to keep the domestic role.
In general, a woman on a bicycle was a highly aestheticised matter. A beautiful rider in a beautiful dress who was supposed to keep her bicycle free of any fingerprint stains, which made a clean cloth a part of the cycling gear. All the pictures of women learning to ride in the book were set in a garden setting, stressing the importance of a womanly way of bicycling. When speaking about the ride, Willard called it ‘the poetry of motion’.
Ladies were advised to obey conventions such as a proper riding distance, lady-like dismounting, and riding in a single file. They were to only ride on easily accessible, well-constructed highways with telegraphs and telephones. In modern way words: ride your bicycle, look good and mannerly, and have your ice cream in the park. But don’t you even think about pedalling too fast or too far!
All of the newly-set principles were then beautifully represented in gymkhana, a cycling event that emerged in the 1890s. A tournament organised for men, women, and their families favoured the domestic, aesthetical courtesy and the ‘proper’ bicycle use over the athletics. There were bicycle games, obviously, but those had to be held in a particular way, no transgression over the moral code allowed.
Were you not to obey the set of norms and ride in an unruly way, you would promptly be accused of anti-domestic cycling, resulting in outrage of the public. The expectation of mannerly public cycling applied both to men and women. Nonetheless, the Victorian morals still held a stricter rule over a woman, her appearances, her movement in the public space and her societal options in general. However, the changes the bicycle craze brought about are undisputable and the bicycle once again played a key role in the history of humankind.