In 2017, New York State had the honor of celebrating the centennial of women winning the legal right to vote, and it was my job to think of a way to take that celebration out to New York State’s parks and historic sites. Now there are lots of ways to commemorate such a momentous occasion, but what came to my mind first was bicycles, believe it or not. Susan B. Anthony once said “I think [bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world,” and matching one of today’s most popular physical activities with one of the most important developments in American democracy just seemed too perfect for words.
It might come as a surprise, but a woman on a bicycle was once a threatening sight—a harbinger of social upheaval that was going to change American life forever. Beginning in the 1860s, women on bicycles were depicted as displacing and overshadowing men. They were ridiculed for their mannish muscles and unusual clothing. They were even accused of neglecting their family responsibilities. Nevertheless, they persisted, and by the mid 1890s, women joined a nation-wide bicycling craze, and—after all that worry—they succeeded in changing what it meant to be a woman after all. Even women who did not ride bikes felt the impact of the changes it wrought.
Bicycles went through a variety of forms before coming around to the chain-driven, diamond-shaped frame we are familiar with now. Even though the new design was being marketed in the 1880s, few women attempted to ride the contraption. Cumbersome skirts, and more cumbersome social constructs about women’s frailty, kept them away. But it was only a few years later in the middle of the decade that the drop-frame bicycle (now commonly referred to as “a girl’s bike”) made way for women’s skirts. To make it easier, they followed advice once distributed by radical dress reformers, reducing the layers of petticoats and hemming their skirts above the ankle to make riding easier and safer. Some daring women even adopted the controversial “Bloomer Suit.” Armed with their bicycles, everyday women were now ready to change the world.
Taking to the roads challenged pre-conceptions about women in the 1890s. The cost of bicycles fell from as much as $150 to as little as $17.50, making them available to not just middle-class women, but also to some in the working poor. Their speed and efficiency eased jobs for some women like laundresses or even vegetable sellers who vended from clever devices built onto their bicycles. Middle class women benefited from the increased social connection, joining clubs—including suffrage organizations—with greater freedom than ever before. They also proved their physical capability, competing alongside men in “Century Runs,” or one hundred mile races. The ideal of the dependent, fragile woman of the mid-nineteenth century was gradually replaced by the more robust image of the active Gibson Girl in the 1890s.
With all this history in mind, I hastily blurted out, “So I’ll make a biking costume, and buy a vintage bike, and ride around at our historic sites telling people about the history of bicycling women!” Never mind that I hadn’t ridden a bicycle since the seventh grade, and I didn’t have a bike, and I still had to make the biking costume—this idea seemed easy in the dead of winter with three months to go.
Fast forward a few weeks, and I found myself freshly in possession of a vintage 1963 Raleigh bicycle (a surprisingly-close substitute for an 1895 model) and deeply engrossed in sewing a bicycling costume—complete with a steel-boned corset and reproduction high-heeled shoes. If I was going to go for a historic bike ride, I was going to do it in style!
It took some physical conditioning. I’m not going to say how long ago I had been in junior high, but it was long enough that I needed a little practice. But just like the women of the 1890s, I found it refreshing to get outside and feel my own legs powering me through rural New York State, and pretty soon it also came with a sense of pride.
When summer was in full bloom, I found myself driving all across New York State with a bicycle and a big smile, explaining to everyone I encountered why going for a bike ride was, in fact, a celebration of women’s independence. I visited seven historic sites from Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua to the Old Croton Aqueduct in Dobbs Ferry during the summer and fall of 2017, and I rode about 40 miles along with men, women, and children who got some exercise and celebrated some history all at the same time.
Kjirsten Gustavson is the Interpretive Programs Coordinator at the Peebles Island Resource Center. This specialized office helps New York State historic sites preserve and share their history with the public through conservation, exhibits, research, and a broad variety of additional assistance.
Featured image: Grems-Doolittle Library: The Heyday of Bicycles in Schenectady, 1890-1910