Friday 11 August 2023

Bicycling Ladies Revisited by Joan Lennon

In 2012, I wrote a History Girls post about Bicycles and Revolution - I was just a reservist back then, and it was just a casual interest. Eleven years later, it is becoming a bit more than that as I return to the topic for an upcoming book. So here is the post from then to enjoy for now!

(The original video I got off YouTube has disappeared, but the one below is a longer version of the same event, beginning with a rather anxious parade of ladies, carefully bracketed by 'wheelmen', and then showing some skills not dissimilar to those displayed at Crufts.)

As we watch these elegant, white-clad, straight-backed ladies weave genteelly in and out, it is hard to remember that they were commiting an act of rebellion. Snooks were being cocked. Gauntlets flung.

At the end of the 19th century, a bicycle with a woman astride was still a disconcerting sight - a challenge to trouser-wearing men. In Cambridge, when the question of full degrees for females was being discussed in the Senate, an effigy of a "rationally dressed" lady on a bicycle was hung out of the window of the building opposite, flanked by banners declaring “No Gowns for Girtonites” and “Varsity for Men”.

(Image: Cambridge Daily News, 21 May 1897.)

The effigy was burned later in the day, and the motion was defeated. But the ladies went on riding. They wore bloomers. They went places without being taken by a man. They started carrying toolbags.

"Let me tell you what I think about bicycling," said Susan B. Anthony, American campaigner for Votes for Women, in 1896. "It has done more to emancipate women than anything else in this world. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammeled womanhood. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman on a wheel."

It was a wheel that would not be turned back. But completely "untrammelled womanhood"? Not quite. Even in a world full of "new women" there had to be some standards ... In 1895 the New York World printed a list of Don'ts for Lady Cyclists, which included the following admonitions:

Don’t be a fright.
Don’t faint on the road.
Don’t forget your toolbag
Don’t imagine everybody is looking at you.
Don’t go to church in your bicycle costume.
Don’t wear a garden party hat with bloomers.
Don’t contest the right of way with cable cars.
Don’t wear white kid gloves. Silk is the thing.
Don’t ask, “What do you think of my bloomers?”
Don’t let your golden hair be hanging down your back.
Don’t allow dear little Fido to accompany you
Don’t scratch a match on the seat of your bloomers.
Don’t discuss bloomers with every man you know.
Don’t scream if you meet a cow. If she sees you first, she will run.

Still good advice about cows, though.

Also see YS Lee's 2015 History Girls post Bikes, Bars and Bloomers for more on this fascinating subject.

Joan Lennon website

Joan Lennon Instagram

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