Bicycles and the Expansion of American Freedom

Although we originally posted this article for Independence Day last year, we felt that the topic was important enough to warrant a second posting for folks that may have missed it the first time around.

As we celebrate American independence this Fourth of July it is easy to forget that much of the freedoms we enjoy today came into being long after 1776. At the turn of the 20th century, the humble bicycle played a conspicuous role in advancing these freedoms and in shaping American society into a form that is recognizable to us today. In addition to serving as a skeleton for the motorcycle, bicycles motivated the creation of modern smooth roads that literally paved the way for the automobile. Bicycles also helped to inspire and train the Wright Brothers to develop the first successful powered heavier than air aircraft (to learn more than you would ever want to know on this topic my master’s thesis is available to read here). More importantly, bicycles radically challenged power structures in American society.

Women Cyclists in the 1890's

Women in particular saw the greatest gains in human rights and freedoms that the bicycle revolution fostered. The Victorian era was marked by it’s obsession with the cult of domesticity and it’s severe personal restrictions on women. These restrictions took many forms including social mores that often required male accompaniment outside the home, apparel that hobbled mobility and made physical exertion impossible, and a lack of representation in political spheres. Bicycles brought about radical changes to each of these oppressive forces and helped to move our nation closer to fulfilling the promise of inalienable human rights articulated in the Declaration of Independence.

Early Women's Cycling ClubsInitially, the new freedoms enjoyed by women that the bicycle prompted came in the form of increased mobility. Without the need for a carriage and driver women could efficiently cover more mileage under their own power than ever before. Soon women’s cycling clubs sprung up that not only provided a healthy social outlet for women, it provided organization that helped to unify female political voices.

1890s Women's cycling costumeCycling also served as the impetus to eliminate the binding, heavy, and impractical fashions that prevented women from performing activities outside of the scope of duties men expected of them. Corsets, multiple layers of heavy petticoats, and floor length dresses gave way to bloomers and other “cycling costumes” that allowed women to safely exercise on bikes. This radical change in women’s fashions not only improved mobility; it allowed women to demonstrate their full physical strength in a public venue. Attitudes regarding women’s physical capabilities were challenged as women began competing in races against men. There was stiff resistance to these fashion changes that were assailed in newspapers as an assault on womanhood and female decency. Nevertheless, female cyclists successfully pressed for their rights in the face of police forces that levied public disturbance fines on women cyclists.

Susan B. Anthony celebrated the bicycle and the brave women who rode them when she famously remarked, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride on a wheel.”

Wheels of Change by Sue MacyTo learn more about the remarkable role that bicycles have played in the fight for women’s rights, I highly recommend reading Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way). Author Sue Macy’s review of the early history of women on bicycles is beautifully illustrated. Accessible to casual readers, this fun monograph is a fascinating read that is filled with primary source material and interesting quotes. Armed with the knowledge gleaned from this book, my appreciation for the role of the bicycle in our society has been greatly enhanced as I reflect on the revolutionary changes brought forth by our beloved two wheeled machines and the women that used bicycles to change the world.

Daniel Slusser is a professional bicycle mechanic with over ten years of experience. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from HSU and a master’s degree in history from Cal Poly. When he is not riding, wrenching, or writing he enjoys spending time with his wife and two children.