The bicycle. A fantastic and simple piece of technology, and one that we take for granted every day. However, did you know that the bicycle was a primary vehicle for women’s liberation in the 1800’s?

It literally set the wheels in motion for some of the most significant changes to the social structure the UK has experienced.

Imagine yourself as a woman during the early 1800’s, heavily restricted by your lack of rights, your clothing and by your limited social interactions. For many women of this era, there was little resistance outside of the walls of their family home, and even then dependent on when their husbands and fathers weren’t around. However, that patriarchal order was altered with the invention and distribution of the bicycle and in a wholly unprecedented way.

In the late 1800s, the safety bicycle superseded the, somewhat hazardous and non-female friendly, Penny Farthing. The new and improved pedalling machine, known as the Rover Safety Bicycle, had 26-inch wheels, a diamond-shaped frame and came equipped with luggage accessories like baskets and bags. For women, the bicycle suddenly became a viable mode of transportation. Moreover, like the introduction of the postbox, which allowed women to post letters away from the prying eyes of men, the bicycle allowed women to travel as they pleased. Within limits, of course.

Shortly after the Safety Bicycle became available to the mass market, the National American Women’s Suffragette Association formed. Co-founder and avid cyclist, Susan B. Anthony said that the bicycle “did more to emancipate women than anything else in the world”.

Do you see those trousers you’re wearing? Well, you can mostly thank the bicycle for them. Unable to cycle in hoop skirts with the many layers of material that went into the construction of Victorian fashion, the bicycle took women’s clothing in a whole new direction. Bloomers, worn underneath skirts, became more prominent, thicker and darker in material as the skirt length shorted to allow the bloomers to, well, bloom! Thus allowing women to pedal more freely and both mount and dismount the bicycle with considerably more grace.

Of course, men were disgusted by this. Not only by the apparent similarities forming between women’s bloomers and men’s pantaloons, but seeing a woman have such freedom, travelling from town-to-town was considered a direct challenge to the patriarchal social order.

Abusive remarks thrown at women who rode their bikes included “prostitute”, mainly owing to the sudden improve mobility for women to visit neighbouring towns for socialising and meeting potential partners. So really, you can also thank the bicycle for a more diverse gene pool as well!

Once the bicycle wheels gained momentum, there were no stopping women from riding their way to liberation. Even when men were flooding the radio waves, the newspapers and public forums to outrightly call cycling women, abominations who were utterly disgusting, female cyclists continued to grow in numbers and pedal through the adversity.

Today, cycling is seen as a hobby and mode of transportation, so it’s not all that strange to see a woman on a bike riding along a road or country lane. However many women still risk abuse or even imprisonment when riding their bikes in public.  In September of 2016, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameni was quoted as having decreed that women were allowed to ride bikes - just not in public. The immediate backlash was a reaction from women cyclists, who began to post photographs on social media under the hashtag #IranianWomenLoveCycling. And in other countries, similar movements are gaining momentum, with many women rallying together to use the bicycle as a tool to break these culture taboos. Last year, after a lengthy period of controversy which delayed the film's premiere Afghan Cycles, a film documenting the Afghan women's cycling revolution, finally debuted, marking visibility for a once underground subculture of Afghan society. 

Perhaps it’s time to get your rusting freedom machine out of the shed, give it some love and set to the streets with a greater understanding of how the bicycle help shaped the women’s rights movement.

Jessica Strange is a passionate journalist, mountain biker and equal rights advocate. When she’s not riding her bike, she can often be found cosied up with a cup of tea and her cat, Gomez Thunderpaws.

She tweets at: @velomejess

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