Revolting Daughters, Bicycles, and the Road to Female Equality

How the safety bicycle opened a door for women's rights

1 month ago by Kristina Slade

It’s been one hundred years since the adoption of the 19th Amendment, proclaiming that the right to vote cannot be denied on the basis of sex. And while it may feel like that was a long time ago, the pursuit of this goal started long before then. Right as this country’s political system was being built, Abigail Adams was warning her husband John of the perils of not including women in the vote. It was a long road from the late 1700s to August 26, 1920. And one that was taken by a very small number of women for a great number of years. It was a cause without its constituency. It didn’t have enough traction. Turns out, what the movement needed was a better way to move.

Back in the 1880s, J.K. Starley introduced one of the most consequential designs in history: the safety bicycle. Unlike its predecessors, the safety bike had two wheels of the same size, a chain-driven back wheel, and pedals positioned under the saddle. If you’re thinking, “Well yeah, that’s a bike,” you’re right. This new design was so right, so much safer and easier to use, that it became the standard around the world and the bike we know today. As a form of transportation, the safety bicycle was less expensive, easy to use, could go for distances, and was capable of high speeds. And for these very reasons, this technological innovation designed by men, and intended for men, became a subversive engine for female equality and freedom.

An early advertisement for the Cogent Safety Bicycle, 1887.

For one thing, the bikes didn’t have a spot for a chaperone. This was a time when women and girls were prescribed to stay indoors, almost always at home, and only venture outside in the company of a guardian and only to acceptable places. Societal norms kept women imprisoned. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, the church-backed temperance movement had led to a surge of volunteerism amongst middle-class women, giving rise to a burgeoning interest in women’s rights. In 1894, Blanche Alathea Crackanthrope (which has got to be one of the greatest names ever) wrote an article, “The Revolt of the Daughters,” which advocated for investing in the well-being and future of girls as much as boys and consider them to be “an individual as well as a daughter.” Inspired, young women took up the spirit as well as the demands, self-identifying themselves with the proto-punk moniker, The Revolting Daughters.

The movement spread and soon women from all over the country were riding bikes.

It was at this ripe moment when the safety bicycle became widely available, leading to explosive growth in the popularity of cycling. Faster than a horse and cheaper than a car, the bike most importantly gave women control over where they went and when. By hopping on a bike, women had dominion over themselves. They were their own engine of power. After being cooped up in their homes and always groomed for presentation, women of privilege were using their muscles, discovering their physical capabilities, and releasing their endorphins. This freedom, a direct experience rather than an abstract theory, was unprecedented. And its importance is hard to overstate.

Beatrice Grimshaw, noted adventurer, wrote of her girlhood as a Revolting Daughter, “I bought a bicycle. I rode unchaperoned, miles and miles beyond the limits possible to the soberly trotting horses. The world opened before me. I went away from home, to see what the world might give to daughters who revolted.”

The media began to take notice. As one editorial in 1896 observed, “To women, [the bicycle] was a steed on which they rode into a new world.” Soon the vivid “Revolting Daughters” name gave way to the more palatable and enduring term “New Woman” and a socially rebellious icon and phenomenon was born. With a bicycle beside her.

Now, women could meet each other freely to socialize. Or to organize. The bicycle enabled women to be outside their domestic boundaries and see themselves as a part of society. As their physical world expanded, so did their appetite to find their place in it.

“I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world.” — Suffragist Frances E. Willard

In a radically short time, the bicycle was changing women’s ideas of acceptable femininity. Up until then, for a middle or upper-class woman to be seen in public, she had to be wearing a corset that was actively squeezing her organs and ribs to meet in the middle, while draped in layers of long and heavy fabrics. Not only was this horribly uncomfortable, it was highly impractical and an impediment for cycling.

The Ladies’ Home Journal cover from March 1898 featured a bicycle advertisement on page 1. It showed the popularity of women’s cycling in the early years of the bicycle.

Women in search of alternatives gave momentum to a new movement advocating for “rational dress,” resulting in lighter materials, shorter skirts, bloomers, divided skirts, and even trousers. This not only changed the landscape of women’s fashion, it gave them choices. Women’s cycle wear became a visual signifier of the New Woman. A woman on a bike embodied the spirit of change and progress that women’s rights movements had been trying to engender in women for years.

And so, predictably, it became a flashpoint and an object of ridicule as well. Women on bicycles were pelted with objects and obscenities. Bikes were a direct threat to keeping women at home: with bikes to ride, women had choices. The backlash was inevitable and it came in many forms and on many grounds. Doctors and clergy spoke out in print and in sermons. They warned that if women rode bikes they would ruin their beauty with “bicycle face” and bow leggedness; imperil their health with tuberculosis, infertility, and gout; and inevitably turn into immoral women engaged in a host of sexual transgressions. Women cycling had become such a threat of social upheaval, undergraduates at Cambridge protesting the admission of women hung a woman on a bike in effigy.

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” — Suffragist Susan B. Anthony

Nevertheless, they persisted. Rather than running away from the bicycle and its association with trumped-up accusations and scorn, suffragettes leaned into it. They embraced the bicycle as a symbol and used it as a tool. In London, in addition to adorning their bikes with banners proclaiming “Votes for Women,” wily women created coordinated bike brigades that blocked Winston Churchill’s motorcade to create public scenes and political confrontations.

Women created exclusive cycling clubs of their own with activities, newsletters, uniforms, and competitions. The popular women’s magazine Godey’s declared, “In possession of her bicycle, the daughter of the 19th century feels that the declaration of her independence has been proclaimed.” And in a surprisingly modern example of customized niche marketing, Elswick introduced a custom bicycle in the colors of the suffrage movement, complete with an embossed “Medallion of Freedom.”

A “new woman” is pictured wearing “rational dress”, which meant a new wave of comfortable fashion as freedom expanded beyond the bicycle.

Once adopted, the bicycle continued to enable women to expand their horizons, appetites, and accomplishments throughout history. But its most powerful and legendary role is opening women to these possibilities in the first place. During the safety bicycle’s initial rise in popularity, suffragist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton could already see its importance and power in transforming women’s lives. She predicted that the independence women gained from bicycles would lead to courage and self-reliance in other spheres of their lives, including the fight for voting rights. It’s over one hundred years later, and women still credit cycling for their own experiences of the same freedom, discovery, and strength that were awakened in socially repressed women a century ago. Even for female pros on the Rally Cycling team, being on a bike continues to be a source of development, self-knowledge, and courage.

“With cycling, there’s a freedom that you personally feel that isn’t really compared to anything. It’s your own free-spirited exploration of the world. There’s a lot of fun in seeing what you can do, and how strong you can be.” — Heidi Franz, Pro cyclist, Rally Cycling
“I think what I’ve learned about myself through cycling is that there’s an underlying reservoir of grit and mental fortitude. And it’s cool because the world can throw tons at you, but bikes have taught me that it’s okay. It’s not easy, it never is. But you can adapt and overcome.”— Sara Bergen, Pro cyclist, Rally Cycling
“It’s the freedom of riding a bike – being able to see different places, being able to go anywhere whether it’s a long road or up a mountain, opening up to experiences you haven’t had before, seeing things from a different viewpoint, and being able to go as hard as you want.” — Megan Jastrab, Pro cyclist, Rally Cycling
“There’s no better feeling than when you surpass your own limits. When you’re proud of yourself, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thought. The bike has definitely given me a way to get the best out of myself. And I think that’s really empowering and carries over into every aspect of my life.” — Krista Doebel-Hickok, Pro cyclist, Rally Cycling

 

So today, the day we’re celebrating Women’s Equality and our right to be heard, it just may be the perfect time to grab your bike, generate your own power, and find your path forward. Ride revolting daughters! Ride!

 

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