beryl burton cycling featured image

The bicycle is often spoken about in terms of its ‘humbleness’ and technological simplicity. But this is unfair. Because of our current car-addled universe, we sometimes forget the huge social impact of the bicycle in favour of grander societal arcs.

The History of Cycling Infographic

It’s also difficult to express sincerity when dealing with a topic that invites such earnestness, so that’s why I’m going to use distinctly non-journalistic language to tell you that the bicycle is TOTALLY AWESOME, and it DEFINITELY changed the world’s approach to those of us with LADY BITS.

Women: stand up and applaud the rust bucket in your garage. For it had a big part in creating a world where you can freely argue with Caitlin Moran on Twitter about whether real feminists eat avocados.

old vintage history timeline ladies safety bicycle 1891

In the 1880s, safety bicycles using chain drives were introduced. Along with the invention the Dunlop tyre, suddenly bicycles went from rich men’s toys, to be bonafide and (kind of) comfortable methods of transport. In 1895, 800,000 bikes were built in Britain alone.

A lot of those bikes were purchased by or for women. And like the invention of the postbox (women being able to send letters without the prying eyes of their father looking over the content first? Madness!), the bicycle proved to be another leap in women not having to request permission to do normal, boring stuff.

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Suddenly, a whole world full of handsome gentlemen opened up for women across the U.K. Rob Penn said it well in his BBC Four documentary on the bike: “The bicycle played a critical role in both the emancipation of women, and the subsequent expansion of the national gene pool. Young women could now travel to neighbouring villages and meet a wider circle of young men." … To have sexy-time with them. He’s talking about sex.

women man illustration cycling old newspaper vintage

It’s therefore no wonder, with all this sexual autonomy on offer, that there was reaction against women riding bicycles. In 1891, a journalist at the American paper Sunday Herald wrote the following: “I think the most vicious thing I ever saw in all my life is a woman on a bicycle–and Washington is full of them. I had thought that cigarette smoking was the worst thing a woman could do, but I have changed my mind."

So why did people have such a problem with women cycling? Well, these ladies were cheeky enough to cycle outside, in public. Shock horror. And even if they didn’t see themselves as symbols of emancipation, their very public display of their freedoms was perceived as a challenge to the ingrained and patriarchal social order.

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"The Bicycle is the devil's advance agent, morally and physically in thousands of instances." So ingrained was the notion that women should not be given independence, that it was a woman – Charlotte Smith in 1891 – who said the above.

Traditional aspects of society pushed against these advances. The ‘New Woman’, who wore less restrictive clothing and rode a bicycle, became a satirical figure that was ridiculed in the media, particularly in the U.S. These women were seen to be abandoning their husbands, children, and a more traditional way of life. The relaxed clothes they wore were obviously indicative of their status as prostitutes. Obviously.

Kabul Afghan Women's Cycling Team

But here’s the thing: no one could stop them. Women weren’t set to give up these new freedoms after finally ridding themselves of the dreaded chaperone.

Annie Londonderry was an American mother of three who decided to cycle around the world in fifteen months, setting off from Boston in 1894 carrying only a change of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver. Not only did she make full use of a woman’s new found freedom of movement, she also did a lot to change public perception by becoming a bit of a celebrity.

Since then, there’s been no stopping ladies from pedalling, with Beryl Burton often hailed as one of the most inspiring and important female cyclists or all time. In fact, the act of cycling is still rather revolutionary. Cycling attracts women of all different shapes, sizes, backgrounds, passions and interests. You can enjoy being on your bike in a myriad of ways; from road racing to mountain biking, cyclo-cross to bike polo.

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Cycling encourages women to step outside the traditional gender roles that still exist in our ‘enlightened’ world: it’s not quite the move from skirts to bloomers, but women who cycle are challenging the idea of femininity by partaking in a form of exercise that’s male-dominated.

And in other parts of the world, the bicycle is still acting as a catalyst for change. Shannon Galpin has been working with the Afghan Women’s Cycle team since 2012, trying to kick-start a cultural revolution similar to that which changed things for women in the West in the late 1800s.

“I realised that when you look at any culture, when women started to ride bikes it kind of up-turned the apple cart and created a lot of controversy," says Shannon. “This has happened in every single culture. You can’t blame [the lack of freedom for women] on religion. It’s just a natural, cultural timeline of women’s rights."

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