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From the Archive: Cycling to Equality

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Authored by Katherine Waite
Published on 5th December, 2022 28 min read

From the Archive: Cycling to Equality

"I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel - the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood." 

In the modern day it is hard to imagine the controversial and transformational effect of the bicycle at its popular emergence in the late nineteenth century. Conservatives were outraged at the thought of unchaperoned women cycling around the country getting into trouble, whilst liberals and feminists were thrilled at the freedom and opportunities that the bicycle brought. Susan B. Anthony, American social reformer and women's rights activist, summarised the importance of the bicycle to women in the late nineteenth century:

"Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel - the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood."[1] 

The safety-bicycle

Up to and during the 1870s, most bicycles were of the type we would now call Penny-farthings. These high-wheel and high-risk bicycles became popular amongst sporting young men. The large front wheel allowed a rider to gain speed before there were gears, it was easier to care for than a horse, and travellers were not limited by train routes, schedules, or ticket costs.[2] However, it was not until the introduction of the safety bicycle in the 1880s that public perception shifted and propelled the bicycle to the forefront of society: no longer was a bicycle seen as a dangerous toy for young sportsmen, but an efficient method of commute. The safety bicycle had a diamond-shaped frame with equal-sized wheels that we would recognize today, along with air-filled tube tires and gears. Innovations meant that the rider could go faster safely, and this was a game changer for women.[3] The invention of this style of bicycle unleashed a "cycling craze" throughout Europe and America. The image below is from the weekly periodical The Sketch on 22nd April 1896, and depicts the phenomenon of people riding their bicycles through Hyde Park in London.[4]

 The Sketch, 22nd April 1896. Women cycling in Hyde Park.

The Sketch, 22nd April 1896

“Varsity for Men”

The bicycling craze that swept across Europe and America coincided with and influenced the first wave of feminism, the "New Woman" movement, and the campaign for women's suffrage. These movements brought a new wave of ideas challenging the Victorian paradigm of womanhood. Women were making inroads into professional jobs, and therefore getting married and having children later. This meant that women were leaving the domestic sphere for a more public life.  By the late nineteenth century these ideas coalesced into the concept of the independent "New Woman". As contemporary British journalist Eliza Lynn Linton perceived, the bicycle very quickly became the symbol for the "New Woman". To conservative Eliza this meant that she “despised her home and womanly-world”, disobeyed her parents, smoked cigarettes, and read “risqué novels”.[5] There was a fierce backlash against the threat of the "New Woman" to patriarchal society. It is not surprising, then, that in 1897, in response to a proposal to grant full degrees to female graduates at Cambridge University, outraged male students gathered in Market Square to protest. As well as banners reading “No Gowns for Girtonites” and “Varsity for Men”, there hung an effigy of a woman on a bicycle. The female cyclist was, by this time, an easily recognisable symbol for the "New Woman", who wanted to prosper in a career outside the domestic sphere. Unfortunately, this protest was successful and women were not granted full degrees until 1921. The "New Woman" represented a shifting paradigm of Victorian womanhood, from the "angel of the house" to an emancipated independent person. The prominent effigy of the female cyclist at Cambridge highlights the perceived integral role of the bicycle in this emancipation of women. The New Woman and her bicycle, a strong and independent woman who wore cycling costumes like bloomers, became a symbol of gender equality and redefined femininity going into the twentieth century.[6] 

Male undergraduates at Cambridge University protest against the full admission of female students by hanging an effigy of a ‘New Woman’ on a bicycle from a window in Market Square, circa 1897.

University of Cambridge, 1897

“How little and cramped seems life before the cycle came into it”

The bicycle was not only a symbol of emancipation. At a time when young upper and middle class women were strictly supervised in public, cycling led to an unprecedented degree of unchaperoned freedom.[6] Louise Jeye summarised this in an article for Lady Cyclist in August 1895:

“There is a new dawn...of emancipation and it is brought about by the cycle. Free to wheel, free to spin out in the glorious country,  unhampered by chaperones...the young girl of today can feel the real independence of herself and, while she is building up her better constitution, she is developing her better mind… How little and cramped seems life before the cycle came into it”.[7]

The bicycle subverted the norm of previous generations of women who were expected to stay in the home, only leaving with male company, or with that of a chaperone. As Jeye rejoices, women could feel “the real independence of herself”. In 1896, Joseph Bishop concurred in his essay, "Social and Economic Influence of the Bicycle", when he wrote that “[p]arents who will not allow their daughters to accompany young men to the theatre without chaperonage allow them to go bicycle-riding alone with young men.”[8] At the height of the bicycle craze in 1895, “hundreds of gently nurtured girls” could be seen cycling unchaperoned in the fashionable Battersea Park and Hyde Park.[9] Contemporary Emma Harcourt Williamson enthused in “The Cycle in Society” that cycling heralded the end of the chaperone.[10] Whilst this may be an overstatement, it does emphasise the feeling of the time: that women on bicycles had an unprecedented level of freedom and were able to take control of their own lives.

"Woman is riding to suffrage on a bicycle" 

One consequence of this newfound freedom was that women became increasingly politicised: women had control over what societies, unions, and causes they joined and fought for. The first wave of feminism inspired a number of societies for women’s suffrage in the middle to late 1800s. In 1872 the fight for women's suffrage became a national movement with the formation of the National Society for Women's Suffrage. In 1897, seventeen different suffrage societies were united to create the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Later led by Millicent Fawcett, the NUWSS favoured peaceful campaign methods to gain women the right to vote. The advent of the safety bicycle had brought women out into the public sphere as never before. Women could meet up without relying on anybody else to take them, free of chaperones or male guardianship. Traditional Victorian values, clothing, and theories were challenged by the "New Woman". This encouraged and empowered women to become more politically active. The bicycle was fundamental in this shift, not only as a symbol, but as a method of transportation. Throughout Britain, women met and organsied for suffrage. Although too old to ride herself, American writer and activist Elizabeth Cady Station, at 80, saw this and rejoiced that “the bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect, self-reliance…woman is riding to suffrage on a bicycle".[11]

Suffragists in 1913. They are holding bicycles and standing by a sign that reads "law-abiding women suffragists" 

"The constitution of women is adapted only to moderate exercise."

The Victorian ideal encouraged women to stay inside the home, rebuff any strenuous exercise, and maintain the appearance of a petite, delicate, and frail body.[12] Throughout the early 1800s, women were not advised to partake in physical sports for fear that their delicate constitutions and complexions would suffer. An article published in La Belle Assemblée in 1806 typified nineteenth century medical thought in regards to women exercising:

“Exercise is necessary, but the constitution of women is adapted only to moderate exercise; their feeble arms cannot perform work too laborious and too long continued, and the graces cannot be reconciled with fatigue and sun-burning. Excessive labour reduces and deforms the organs, destroying by repeated compressions that cellular substance which contributes to the beauty of their contours and their colours.”[13] 

Furthermore, it was believed that excessive exercise would damage women's reproductive health. Women were encouraged to walk, dance, and ride horses, but not to excess. The below illustration is typical of the The Illustrated London News and its sister titles throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. It depicts exercises that were suitable for the weaker sex: “simple exercises every woman can practice” to achieve a shapely figure.[14] However, as the nineteenth century progressed women had access to more options for recreational sport, such as tennis and, of course, cycling. This allowed middle- and upper-class women a level of physical fitness that they had not been able to reach before. Although some doctors dragged their heels, many began to advocate for the beneficial effects of exercise for women. During the 1800s the theory of the physically fragile, frail female began to be challenged, replaced with the adventurous and physically robust "New Woman".

The Tatler, 8th April 1902. Article titled "Beauty and how to get it"

The Tatler, 8th April 1902

 “With set faces, eyes fixed before them, and an expression either anxious, irritable, or at best stony.”

The medical professionals who believed women were too frail and fragile to partake in anything but the mildest forms of exercise had many alarming diagnoses for women who dared to ride bicycles. In 1897, A. Shadwell summarised the different ailments he believed were caused by cycling in an article for the National Review. Shadwell starts by suggesting that he has “come across internal inflammation, of which the symptoms are much pain and a kind of chronic dysentery, extremely obstinate, and of the most lowering character.”[15] The author goes on to describe many other ailments caused by the bicycle: appendicitis, a peculiar form of nervous exhaustion, insomnia, headaches, fertility issues, delusional behaviour, and even a form of dementia.[16] Shadwell is not alone in his diagnoses. Many people at the time believed that ruddy cheeks from sun exposure and a strained expression in the muscles of the face could eventually result in a deterioration in the nerves, a headache, and by some accounts even dementia.[17] Further to these terrible symptoms, Shadwell has been credited with coining one of the most well publicised and bizarre medical objections surrounding cycling: the "bicycle face". Shadwell asks “has anybody ever seen persons on bicycles talking and laughing and looking jolly, like persons engaged in any other amusement? Never, I swear. With set faces, eyes fixed before them, and an expression either anxious, irritable, or at best stony.”[18] The Literary Digest, in 1895, archly argued that its warnings against "excessive indulgence in 'wheeling' will perhaps be heeded more on account of the discovery of the alleged 'bicycle face' by English medical papers”. It went on to describe how “over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel, and the unconscious effort to maintain one's balance tend to produce a wearied and exhausted 'bicycle face’”.[19] This, to a modern reader, may seem inexplicable, however, it was presented as a genuine concern in the 1890s. What man would want to marry a woman struck down with bicycle face? Whilst these ailments were said to affect both male and female cyclists, due to the weakness of the female sex they were much worse for women. Shadwell asserts that “young women are the chief sufferers” and wonders “how many other women have spent the major part of the winter in bed or on the sofa from the same cause? Cycling".[20] Furthermore, Shadwell alludes to the physical differences between men and women in his article. He states that there is a “definite anatomical explanation... into which I need not enter, as this is not a medical review, and I am not a New Woman”.[21] Even female physicians were concerned. Arabella Kenealy warned fellow women that too much bicycling would transform their feminine charms to masculine traits.[22] Medical professions went to great lengths to warn the public, but especially women, of the dangers of cycling. Most of these had little to no evidence and formed part of a conservative backlash against the increased freedom of the "New Woman".

A young woman stood with a bike.

"The intoxication of unfettered liberty”

It was not just the medical community that was unimpressed by the female cyclist. Many conservative members of society were appalled at the sexual impropriety of a young women with her legs astride a bicycle. Eliza Lynn Linton wrote an article in Lady’s Realm in December 1896, despairing that there was “not the faintest remnant of that sweet spirit of allurement which, conscious or unconscious, is woman’s supreme attraction”.[23] Far from rejoicing in the freedom available to the female cyclist, Eliza argued that chief of all the dangers attending this new development of feminine freedom “is the intoxication of unfettered liberty”.[24] Many amongst the older conservative upper and middle classes objected to the freedom the bicycle granted to younger women. Historian David Rubinstein argues that they saw in the female cyclist the embodiment of the new woman who “despised her home and 'womanly-world'", disobeyed her parents, smoked cigarettes, and read “riskqué novels”.[25] Fears of impropriety of a sexual nature were not far from these discussions. Many were concerned about the sexual morality of female cyclists. Women were supposed to be chaste and pure: riding astride on a bicycle saddle was not considered feminine and might even have encouraged masturbation.[26] 

Some detractors were not content to critique women from afar, and opted for a more hands-on form of discouragement. Women cycling through certain areas of cities were met by jeers, hoots, and sometimes caps thrown into the wheels of their bicycles in an attempt to unbalance them.[27] Helena Swanwick, later a prominent suffragist and radical, wrote in her memoir of the harassment she faced when cycling through London and Manchester in the 1890s: mill-hands shouted at her, and cab and bus drivers tried to make her fall.[28] On one particularly hostile occasion she was pulled off her bicycle by her skirt in Notting Hill.[29] The backlash against the bicycle was prompt and forceful, but it did little to dissuade most women from the pastime.

“You may behold a young woman 'rationally' clad- and shudder. She is not fair to see.”

One of the biggest changes the emergence of the bicycle necessitated was a change in women’s fashion and style of dress. Ironically enough for conservative medical professionals who feared for women's health, one of the most grievous ways female cyclists could be injured was due to inappropriate clothing. Corsets and petticoats were heavy and cumbersome to wear on a daily basis, but near impossible to efficiently ride a bicycle in. As Helena Swanwick explains, “it is an unpleasant experience to be hurled on to stone setts and find that one’s skirt has been so tightly wound round the pedal that one cannot get up enough to unwind it”.[30] Something had to change.

The movement for rational dress was already an old one by the 1890s.[31] Suffragist Amelia Bloomer had been advocating for "rational" dress since the 1850s: she had argued tirelessly for dress reform, but had been unable to persuade society to move away from restrictive Victorian fashion. However, the bicycle craze awoke a new generation to the "rational clothing" movement. By 1898 the Rational Dress League had wide aims, but much of its effort was devoted to encouraging women to wear rational dress whilst cycling.[32] The cycling craze sealed the fate of the restrictive corset, while bloomers, ridiculed for decades, became more popular.[33] Annie "Londonderry" Cohen Kopchovsky donned the bloomer during her famous bicycle trip around the world, and an updated version of the bloomer soon became a common "bicycle dress" for women during the bicycle craze of the 1890s.[34] 

The Lady Cyclist, June 1896, advertisement for the "Knicker-Skirt".

The Lady Cyclist, June 1896

The Princess periodical wrote despairingly that “women nowadays have not the time as hitherto to devote to the dainty etcetera's of their toilet, and spend their dress allowance on their cycling rig-out instead, and any extra pocket money they possess goes in purchasing new machines”.[35] Times were changing and fashion was being swept along. However, the adoption of more practical clothing was fiercely resisted as immodest and unfeminine.[36] The threat posed by cycling women, especially those attired in rational dress, arose from the perception that they were transgressing not only into masculine wardrobes but also privileged masculine spaces.[37] As a result, women cyclists in "rationals" met jeering crowds wherever they went and sometimes encountered violence.[38] As Frederick Leeming wrote in September 1895, “few would believe how insulting and coarse the British public could be unless they had ridden through a populated district with a lady in ‘rationals’”.[39]

The Hub, 26th February 1898. A cartoon of a woman with a bicycle. The Hub, 26th February 1898

It was not just the public who were disparaging of the move towards rational clothing. There are countless satirical cartoons throughout British periodicals in this time period that mock the “mannish” "New Woman" in her "rationals". The above cartoon "He couldn't be sure", featured in The Hub, plays on the idea that there was increasingly an indistinguishability between the sexes.[40] In 1895, The Freeland Tribune published an article titled “The Pneu-Matic Woman”, the word play of pneumatic referring to the mechanics of the safety bicycle whilst simultaneously referencing the "New Woman". This article recounted how the fiancée of a young man appeared in front of him in a pair of bloomers. This man was morally outraged and immediately ordered his fiancée to dismount from her bicycle and to return indoors to change into skirts or the “marriage would not take place… he drew the line at bloomers on a bike.” The young lady, “a “pneu” woman in every sense” promptly drew off her diamond ring and handed it to the man with the observation that she would not discard bloomers for him or anyone else.[41] The shifting attire in female fashion was seen as a threat to the traditional patriarchal order of the household and society. The fear was that the "New Woman" in "rationals" would not be content with changes in fashion, but would want to use this as a foundation for full equality with man.

The Sketch, 26th March 1896

The Sketch, 26th March 1896

Whilst many female cyclists did adopt the "rational" dress advocated by the dress reform societies, others desired clothing that met the functional needs of riding a bicycle whilst retaining a style that fulfilled contemporary notions of modesty and femininity. Beginning in the 1890s, popular periodical The Sketch included a column “Society on Wheels”. This column discussed all aspects of the cycling phenomenon. On 26th March 1896, this column described how “sometimes when you take walks abroad in the West-End, you may behold a young woman 'rationally' clad- and shudder. She is not fair to see”.[42] This attitude lead many women to find other solutions to the issue of practical clothing to cycle in. Many women at the time were skilled seamstresses, and they modified their more traditional skirts to make riding a bicycle easier. This led to a boom in mail order patterns for women cyclists. The Delineator provided a range of patterns and ideas for skirts, bloomers, and knickerbockers. One such design was patented by Mary Ward: the convertible "Hyde Park Safety Skirt". This design allowed a female cyclist to button up her skirt to ride more easily, and still be “a stylish dress for walking”. This appealed to wealthy women cycling in fashionable places that were popular during the annual season, such as Hyde Park.[43]

Mary Ward's Safety Skirt Patent #9605    The Delineator

                  Mary Ward's Safety Skirt Patent #9605                                                The Delineator

Whilst not every woman was willing to brave public censure in bloomers, the popularity of the bicycle did permanently change women’s fashion in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, it set a precedent for larger changes in women’s fashion to come. The world wars furthered the cause of rational dress as women adopted traditional male clothing to fulfill manual work at home when the men were away fighting.  

“The New Woman rampant”

It is fascinating to discover the transformational effect of the bicycle on the lives of women in the late nineteenth century. Fashion shifted away from tight corsets, cumbersome petticoats, and lengthy skirts. Women relished a creative confidence, designing and patenting designs for stylish and practical bicycle clothing. Unchaperoned women were able to become more politicised and organise for suffrage more effectively. Previous medical doctrines of how "the weaker sex" should not be encouraged to exercise were challenged. Contemporary Holbrook Jackson summarised the importance of the bicycle to the feminist movement when he wrote that the woman cyclist was the "‘New Woman’ rampant".[44] The bicycle transformed women's role in society. No longer trapped in the domestic sphere, women were able to take an active role in society. To contemporaries in the 1890s they appeared to be flourishing, unchecked, unrestrained, and “rampant”.  Ultimately, despite the conservative backlash, the woman cyclist challenged the patriarchal systems that had controlled women for centuries, and allowed an unprecedented freedom of movement and thought. The poem "Evolution of the Wheel", published in the Lady Cyclist in 1896, beautifully reflects the shifting relationship between womanhood and the wheel. No longer is woman a "slave" to the spinning wheel, but freed by the bicycle wheel which "drives all the drudgery away; With health superb and air serene, A slave no longer, but - a queen.!".[45]

The Lady Cyclist, 31st October 1896 "The Evolution of the Wheel" The Lady Cyclist, 31st October 1896

To further research contemporary debates surrounding the bicycle, explore the 111 columns of The Sketch’s “Society on Wheels”: This column has been helpfully tagged as "Supplement: Society on Wheels" by our editorial team.


[1] “Champion Of Her Sex: Miss Susan B. Anthony,” The New York World, 2nd February 1896.

[2] "How The 19th-Century Bicycle Craze Empowered Women And Changed Fashion", 2018, Smithsonian Institution, accessed Nov 7, 2022,

 [3] David Herlihy, Bicycle: The History. (London: Yale University Press, 2004), 246. 

 [4] “The Cycling Craze: London and New York”, The Sketch, 22nd April 1896. 

[5] "The Cycling Craze for Ladies," Lady’s Realm, December 1896, 173.

[6] Keri Engel, "The New Woman & Her Bicycle: Why Did Victorian Men Fear Women On Bikes? | Amazing Women In History", 2022, Amazing Women In History, accessed Oct 19, 2022,

[7] Lady Cyclist, August 1895, 224.

[8] Joseph Bishop, "Social and Economic Influence of the Bicycle", Forum 21, August 1896, 683.

[9] David Rubinstein, “Cycling in the 1890s”, Victorian Studies 21, no. 1 (1977): 63.

[10] A.C. Pemberton and Bertram Fletcher Robinson, “The Cyclist in Society”, in The Complete Cyclist (Cambridge: A.D. Innes, 1897)

[11] "How Women Cycled Their Way to Freedom", World Bicycle Relief, accessed Nov 17, 2022,

[12] Woolum, Janet. Outstanding Women Athletes: Who They are and how They Influenced Sports in America (Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1998), 4.

[13] La Belle Assemblée, Vol. I, Issue III, (London April 1806), 144.

[14] “Beauty and how to get it”, The Tatler, 8th April 1902,

[15] “The Hidden Dangers of Cycling”, The National Review, 1st February 1897.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Straight, "'The Face of the Bicyclist': Women’s Cycling and the Altered Body in The Type-Writer Girl", in Withers J and Shea D P, (Eds.), Culture on Two Wheels: The Bicycle in Literature and Film (University of Nebraska Press 2016), 55-77.

[18] “The Hidden Dangers of Cycling”, The National Review, 1st February 1897.

[19] Joseph Stromberg, "'Bicycle Face': A 19th-Century Health Problem Made Up To Scare Women Away From Biking", 2015, Vox, accessed 17 Nov, 2022,

[20] “The Hidden Dangers of Cycling”, The National Review, 1st February 1897.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Hillary Marland, "‘Bicycle-Face’ and ‘Lawn Tennis’ Girls: Debating girls’ health in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British periodicals," Media History, 2017, 70 - 84.

[23] "The Cycling Craze for Ladies," Lady’s Realm, December 1896, 173.

[24] "The Cycling Craze for Ladies," Lady’s Realm, December 1896, 173.

[25] David Rubinstein, “Cycling in the 1890s.” Victorian Studies 21, no. 1 (1977): 62. 

[26] Sarah Hallenbeck, “Riding Out of Bounds: Women Bicyclists’ Embodied Medical Authority,” Rhetoric Review 29, no. 4 (2010).

[27] David Rubinstein, “Cycling in the 1890s.” Victorian Studies 21, no. 1 (1977): 63. 

[28] Helena M. Swanwick, I Have Been Young. (London: V. Gollancz, 1935), 163-164

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] David Rubinstein, “Cycling in the 1890s.” Victorian Studies 21, no. 1 (1977), 64. 

[32] David Rubinstein, “Cycling in the 1890s.” Victorian Studies 21, no. 1 (1977), 65. 

[33] “Freewheeling to Equality: How Cycling Helped Women on the Road to Rights,” 2015, The Guardian, June 18 2022, accessed 17 Nov, 2022,

[34] Patricia Marks, Bicycles, Bangs, and Bloomers: The New Woman in the Popular Press (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990).

[35] The Princess, 27th June 1896, 6.

[36] “Freewheeling to Equality: How Cycling Helped Women on the Road to Rights.” 2015, The Guardian, June 18 2022, accessed 17 Nov, 2022,

[37] Kat Jungnickel, Bikes and Bloomers: Victorian Women Inventors and Their Extraordinary Cycle Wear (London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018).

[38] David Rubinstein, “Cycling in the 1890s”, Victorian Studies 21, no. 1 (1977): 65.

[39] Ibid.

[40]Frederick Burr Opper, The "New Woman" and Her Bicycle - There Will Be Several Varieties of Her / F. Opper, (New York: Keppler & Schwarzmann, 1895). 

[41] “The Pneu-Matic Woman”, Freeland Tribune, 2nd September 1895.

[42] “Society on Wheels”, The Sketch, 25th March 1896, 399.

[43] Kat Jungnickel. Bikes and Bloomers: Victorian Women Inventors and Their Extraordinary Cycle Wear. (London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018), 234.

[44] Jackson, Holbrook. The Eighteen Nineties: A Review of Art and Ideas at the Close of the Nineteenth Century, 1976, (Harvester Press: 2010), 32.

[45] "The Evolution of the Wheel", The Lady Cyclist, 31st October 1896.

Authored by Katherine Waite

Katherine Waite

Katherine Waite is Head of Publishing at British Online Archives. Katherine studied History at Newcastle University, graduating in 2016. She has worked in the editorial and content teams at British Online Archives. As Head of Publishing she is currently working on curating a collection on the history of pandemic disease in the United Kingdom.

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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