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Susan B. Anthony, the Fierce Crusader for The Bicycle and Women’s Rights

By Megan Flottorp

“I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat, and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood.”

These were the words spoken by Susan B. Anthony in 1896 when she was 76 years old and had spent a lifetime campaigning for women to be treated equally to men. Let’s revisit her many valuable contributions to and insights on temperance, abolition, the rights of labour, and equal pay for equal work. And, of course, her championing of our beloved bicycles.

One of the most visible leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, Anthony and the message she spread are still relevant today. Her belief in the emancipatory capacity of the bicycle continues to be underscored by powerful initiatives worldwide.

Inspired by equality from day one

Born on February 15, 1820, in Massachusetts, Susan B. Anthony was received into a Quaker family that, on her mother’s side, fought in the American Revolution and served in the Massachusetts state government. From an early age, she showed a fiery determination and was inspired by the Quaker belief that everyone was equal under God. This idea guided her throughout her life, and she believed the bicycle tied closely to its realisation.

Cycling and the women’s movement

As we have discussed here before, bicycles had a revolutionary impact on the women’s movement of the early 20th century. The bike offered newfound freedom to women who had long been accustomed to relying on men for transportation. Thanks to the fact that they were relatively inexpensive and readily accessible, the bike suddenly gave women enhanced control over where they went and when.

It is also worth remembering that Anthony grew up in a time when people still largely depended on horses for transportation. Horses and carriages were expensive, so women often had to rely on men to hitch up the horses for travel. Even as other forms of travel emerged, they mostly remained inefficient, expensive, and unavailable to women. So when the practical and affordable bicycle appeared in the city, there was a new avenue by which men and women could acquire individual transportation for business, sports, or recreation.

Susan B. Anthony
Susan B. Anthony at her desk. © Profimedia

As such, bicycles became closely associated with the quintessential “New Woman” of the late 19th century. During this Progressive Era, a great deal of social and cultural changes took place, and Anthony was among the women who saw an opportunity to stand up for themselves and demand equal access to the new forms of education and career paths that were becoming available.

By 1851, Anthony had met Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who would become a lifelong friend and companion in fighting for women’s rights. For over 50 years, the pair travelled the country together. Anthony gave frequent and compelling speeches demanding that women be given the right to vote — even at the risk of being arrested for sharing her ideas in public.

A lasting legacy

Anthony’s ongoing impact has a lot to do with the fact that she did not give up when the going got tough (a lesson all cyclists can relate to). Her disciplined and energetic approach made her a strong leader, and she and Stanton ultimately co-founded the American Equal Rights Association.

In 1868, the dynamic duo became editors of the Association’s newspaper, The Revolution, which helped spread equality and rights for women. Anthonys’ profile continued to rise as she increased her lecture circuit to raise money for publishing the newspaper and to support the suffrage movement. As is usually the case when one receives significant attention for their ideas, she had admirers and detractors in equal measure.

In 1872, she was arrested for voting and fined $100 for her crime. The fact that she was personally targeted enraged many of her supporters and, as a result, brought national attention to the suffrage movement. Four years later, she led a protest at the 1876 Centennial of our nation’s independence, where she gave a speech—“Declaration of Rights.”

Throughout their campaign, the bicycle was a powerful symbol of equality. In 1895, at age 80, suffragist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton claimed that “the bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect, and self-reliance.” Stanton was confident that the bicycle could genuinely transform lives and, offering independence in movement, would inspire women to be bolder and more courageous in other areas, such as demanding voting rights.

And, of course, Susan B. Anthony echoed her friend’s sentiments in the famous quote with which we opened this article, “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat, and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood.”

Ultimately, Anthony dedicated her life to working for women’s rights. Her contributions cannot be overstated, and in 1888, she helped to merge the two most significant suffrage associations into one, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. She led the group until six years before her passing in 1906.

What does Susan B. Anthonys message mean today?

Envisioning the world 200 years ago can make us feel like distant and disinterested observers. Yet, in reality, women today, especially in the developing world, are still fighting for the same freedom and self-reliance as the “New Woman” of Anthony’s time. In these places, bicycles remain a powerful asset that empowers women to escape from sexual harassment often encountered on public transportation and provides an inexpensive means of travel in countries where access to other forms of transit is limited.

Multiple aid organisations have been created over the years to help get bikes to the women who need them and to teach the skills required to fix their own bikes so they can be fully independent while travelling. Almost 200 years after their invention, bicycles still have a hugely positive impact on women’s lives. We are grateful for all the advocates who continue in the footsteps of women like Susan B. Anthony and want to encourage everyone to remember that we still need to fight for the equality she and others dreamed of.