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It has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world
June 20, 2013 9:17 PM   Subscribe

The Bicycle Craze of the 1890s had a significant impact upon women's lives. Leaders of the women's movement saw bike riding as a path to freedom. Many women cyclists enjoyed the freedoms and experiences bikes gave them. Although many health experts recommended biking to women for its health effects, other health experts and some moralists saw dangers in letting women venture off into the wild blue yonder with and without men, danger in potential physical damage to women's bodies, disaster in letting them adopt "unfeminine garb" - and of course, they might enjoy it TOO much.

In the 1890s, Bloomers, which had been mocked virtually out of usage, made a comeback for women bicyclists. (The mocking and insulting of women wearing bloomers continued.) In England, the move towards rational dress expanded on Bloomer's work.

See also: The Rise and Fall of the Bicycle in 19th Century America

Previously on the Blue: Women on Bikes, which had a great link to this 1895 Etiquette Guide

Title Quote by Susan B. Anthony (1896)
posted by julen (56 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh.My.God. Women were warned against something called "bicycle face". I shall be on a long ride tomorrow and I intend to practice it for the whole trip.
posted by maudlin at 9:25 PM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Shadwell on "bicycle face":
Some time ago I drew attention to the peculiar strained, set look so often associated with this pastime and called it the ‘bicycle face’; the general adoption of the phrase since then indicates a general recognition of its justice. Some wear the “face” more and some less marked, but nearly all have it, except the small boys who care little for croppers. Has anybody ever seen persons on bicycles talking and laughing and looking jolly, like persons engaged in any other amusement? Never, I swear.
posted by maudlin at 9:28 PM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


GOOD HEAVENS IT'S THAT AWFUL VELOCIPEDESTRIENNE
posted by elizardbits at 9:28 PM on June 20, 2013 [22 favorites]


I BELIEVE YOU MEANT "VELOCIRAPTORPEDESTRIENNE"
posted by maudlin at 9:30 PM on June 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


GOOD HEAVENS IT'S THAT AWFUL VELOCIPEDESTRIENNE

Yes, I just came here to link to that :)
posted by gkhan at 9:31 PM on June 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


I have a sewing machine (somewhere). Why oh why do I not have bloomers?
posted by maudlin at 9:32 PM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


“Of the women who had orgasms during exercise, about 45 percent said their first experience was linked to abdominal exercises; 19 percent linked to biking/spinning; 9.3 percent linked to climbing poles or ropes; 7 percent reported a connection with weight lifting; 7 percent running; the rest of the experiences included various exercises, such as yoga, swimming, elliptical machines, aerobics and others. Exercise-induced sexual pleasure was linked with more types of exercises than the orgasm phenomenon.”
Goodness gracious. The most I get out of exercise is an endorphin high.
posted by figurant at 9:53 PM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ahhhhhh ab day
posted by nathancaswell at 10:14 PM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


The last thing I want to have to think about is what my squinty, sweaty face looks like while I am on my bike. Clearly, I will have to distract from it with a pair of stylish bloomers.
posted by Hopeful and Cynical at 10:15 PM on June 20, 2013


Your ride doesn't count if you didn't cry.
posted by planetesimal at 10:23 PM on June 20, 2013


Sometimes I sing to myself when I'm riding a bike.

Does that mean I'm going about this Bike Face thing all wrong?
posted by Sara C. at 10:42 PM on June 20, 2013


GOOD HEAVENS IT'S THAT AWFUL VELOCIPEDESTRIENNE

Let's all buy this shirt and wear it on bike rides
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:15 PM on June 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


The mocking and insulting of women wearing bloomers continued.

And then it turned to praise. In 1988, NWA was rapping about "Sweatin' all the bitches in the biker shorts," but I don't think they had bloomers in mind.
posted by three blind mice at 11:51 PM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is nice timing. Just yesterday, while happily talking about the Tour de France's upcoming passage a few meters from our offices, and planning to go there on my bike (hey maybe you'll catch a glimpse of me on the 3 July stage as they go through Valbonne - Sophia Antipolis!), a guy offered the following gem to our group of lunchers:

Guy: "You know, there's a real physical risk when women cycle too much."
Others: "Huh? What's that?"
Guy: "Well it gives them fat thighs. I mean seriously, who wants to see fat thighs on a woman. And oh god, don't get me started on their huge butts."

To the credit of the other men present, though I kind of wish someone had the courage to say "not cool, man", they stared at him incredulously.

Me, easy-going because this guy is somewhat known for his little outbursts: "I like my muscular thighs, and holy cow do I ever love cycling."
Guy, contemptuously: "Yeah, pffha, everyone has their own tastes, I suppose."
Me: "Thank goodness for that!" Genuinely. Because dude. Is there even a debate to be had between muscular cyclist butt n' thighs over that kind of outlook on life?

Loving these links!
posted by fraula at 12:53 AM on June 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


and of course, they might enjoy it TOO much.

So, uh, these ‘bicycles’— they vibrate?

(The author seems to think that female masturbation was singled out for disapproval then, but male masturbation was rather disapproved of as well, resulting in everything from Graham's crackers to these things. Masturbation in general was thought to be unhealthy and dangerous.)
posted by hattifattener at 1:15 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


God damn, Ladies, why must you always clamor for activities which are a deadly threat to uterus and me femininity alike!?!
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:15 AM on June 21, 2013


I have a sewing machine (somewhere). Why oh why do I not have bloomers?

If only there were some kind of apparatus that would allow you to make some bloomers ...
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:00 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Were those silly hats supposed to serve as protective headgear? Do we have any stats on cyclists' head injuries from the 19th century? What did horse drawn carriage drivers think of this nonsense?
posted by orme at 5:27 AM on June 21, 2013


I think I'm doing it wrong. All I ever get out of bike riding is a sore butt. I've never found a seat soft enough to cushion it off.

(This was a good read, thanks!)
posted by Omnomnom at 5:29 AM on June 21, 2013


A couple years ago I was reading a history of the bicycle derailleur (far, far more interesting than you might think). Since most of the documentation for the book had to come from old patent and business records, the author spent a little time on how slowly the bicycle took off in the U.S. compared to Europe: the upshot being, basically, that some people bought U.S. rights to bicycle patents and used them, basically, as a patent troll to fix prices arbitrarily high and make bicycles too expensive to be worthwhile.

There would be a good essay to be pulled out of that by somebody better versed in legal history, since it seems relevant these days too.
posted by ardgedee at 5:30 AM on June 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


Guy: "You know, there's a real physical risk when women cycle too much."

What a maroon. This guy's "real physical risk" is that he won't want to fuck women who bike too much?

Also, his reasoning is amazing. I don't pretend to be an expert on what gives other people "fat thighs", but I'm pretty sure that moderate exercise almost always mitigates against it somewhat.
posted by gauche at 5:41 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Women were warned against something called "bicycle face".

Better bikeyface.
posted by Aizkolari at 6:02 AM on June 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


i have to admit all the cycling i do has given me thunder thighs, but they are the sexiest, most powerful thunder you will ever see coming.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 6:03 AM on June 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Mum mum mum my!
Mum mum mum my!
Mum mum mum my!
Mum mum mum my!
Mum mum mum my!

I would like the freedom to go to some new place
Roll left turn right here ring my little bell stay with me, I love it
Pack a picnic basket some wine and cheese to start
And after I've escaped I'll read some books dear to my heart

Oh, oh, oh
I'll ride like a shot, because I bike a lot
Oh, oh, oh
I'll ride like a shot, because I bike a lot

Can't read my, can't read my
No he can't read my bicycle face
(She's got to wait on nobody)
Can't read my, can't read my
No he can't read my bicycle face
(She's got to wait on nobody)

Bi-bi-bi-bi-bicycle face, bi-bi-bicycle face
(Mum mum oh my!)
Bi-bi-bi-bi-bicycle, bi-bi-bicycle face
(Mum mum oh my!)

I wanna roll out along the sandy beach
A little cycling is fun when you're with me, I love it
A morning outing is not the same without some gum
And baby when it's day if it's not breezy it isn't fun, fun

Oh, oh, oh
I'll ride like a shot, because I bike a lot
Oh, oh, oh
I'll ride like a shot, because I bike a lot

Can't read my, can't read my
No he can't read my bicycle face
(She's got to wait on nobody)
Can't read my, can't read my
No he can't read my bicycle face
(She's got to wait on nobody)

Bi-bi-bi-bi-bicycle face, bi-bi-bicycle face
(Mum mum oh my!)
Bi-bi-bi-bi-bicycle, bi-bi-bicycle face
(Mum mum oh my!)

posted by tilde at 6:13 AM on June 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


I dunno, they might have been on to something. A vast majority of my partners in immoral sexual congress were also cyclists, shared cycling with me and I even met one on a bicycle!

Meanwhile, once you buy a bicycle seat that protects your sensitive bits, you never go back. Perineums are important, yo.
posted by Skwirl at 6:15 AM on June 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Those of you into bloomers + bikes, and close to London, might consider going on a Tweed Run.
posted by emjaybee at 6:42 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


immoral sexual congress

Isn't that just outside of Liberal, KS?
posted by eriko at 7:20 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Bicycle Face featuring Brian Huskey.
posted by 41swans at 7:27 AM on June 21, 2013


That seat....someone cared about this enough to MAKE that
posted by thelonius at 7:28 AM on June 21, 2013


(The author seems to think that female masturbation was singled out for disapproval then, but male masturbation was rather disapproved of as well, resulting in everything from Graham's crackers to these things. Masturbation in general was thought to be unhealthy and dangerous.)

Widespread Male circumcision, too, arose out of the desire to curb masturbation. It didn't work, but that hasn't stopped Americans from continuing to try.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 7:55 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]




It seems so bizarre now that it was necessary to create an entire society to try and convince people that women shouldn't have to wear more than seven pounds of underwear. I don't even wear seven pounds of clothes.
posted by windykites at 8:10 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Truthfully, the only problem I have with the muscular thighs issue was that I used to have an ex who, during climax, would go as stiff as a board. There was more than once I was worried that I would either asphyxiate or have my head crushed like a walnut.

You'd think I'd learn after the first couple times, but there are things in the world that are worth dicing with death to do.
posted by Samizdata at 8:12 AM on June 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Mr.Encyclopedia: "(The author seems to think that female masturbation was singled out for disapproval then, but male masturbation was rather disapproved of as well, resulting in everything from Graham's crackers to these things. Masturbation in general was thought to be unhealthy and dangerous.)

Widespread Male circumcision, too, arose out of the desire to curb masturbation. It didn't work, but that hasn't stopped Americans from continuing to try.
"

Well, in my current sitch, not only does it make me unhappy, but it is dramatically non-functional. Epically, possibly.
posted by Samizdata at 8:13 AM on June 21, 2013


Also, what's the deal with restrictive clothing? Fashion and social acceptability- for men and women- seems to rely on wearing clothes in which it is difficult to move. Look at suits, or high heels, or tight jeans, or jeans so baggy you can only shuffle. I don't get it! Why aren't we all wearing leotards and runners?
posted by windykites at 8:13 AM on June 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


windykites: "Also, what's the deal with restrictive clothing? Fashion and social acceptability- for men and women- seems to rely on wearing clothes in which it is difficult to move. Look at suits, or high heels, or tight jeans, or jeans so baggy you can only shuffle. I don't get it! Why aren't we all wearing leotards and runners?"

Dunno. I am a baggy jeans and tee kind of guy and have been for a long time.
posted by Samizdata at 8:14 AM on June 21, 2013


The deal with restrictive clothing is that it implies one doesn't need to move around a lot. It's basically saying "I'm not a physical laborer." Or, if one is a physical laborer, it says, "I may be a physical laborer, but I'm not on the clock right now."
posted by Sara C. at 8:17 AM on June 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


Has anybody ever seen persons on bicycles talking and laughing and looking jolly, like persons engaged in any other amusement? Never, I swear.

Ah, the time before stock photography.
posted by weston at 8:32 AM on June 21, 2013


I think I'm doing it wrong. All I ever get out of bike riding is a sore butt. I've never found a seat soft enough to cushion it off.

I would suggest trying a firmer saddle.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:08 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, what's the deal with restrictive clothing? Fashion and social acceptability- for men and women- seems to rely on wearing clothes in which it is difficult to move. Look at suits, or high heels, or tight jeans, or jeans so baggy you can only shuffle. I don't get it! Why aren't we all wearing leotards and runners?

There are whole books written and courses taught about the history and purpose of clothing. Many of them fascinating and I would highly recommend reading a few.

The short answer to your question, though is a)display of wealth/status b)display of gender roles and c)display of social role/function (uniforms, crowns, pope hats). Surprisingly often, comfort comes in second to these purposes.

However, many people throughout history have shared your views, and they tend to join nudist/naturist societies, invent things like bloomers and unisex caftans (jumpsuits were big for a while), and occasionally agitate for changes in clothing-related laws. The rest of society tends to ignore them because no one wants to be made fun of and it's also harder to get employment if you don't want to deal with dress codes. There is massive pressure to dress like the rest of society that only a few hardy and/or independently wealthy souls will resist.

However, given that my grandfather couldn't leave the house without a hat on when he was my age and my grandmother had to deal with girdles, I would say things are moving in a more comfortable direction.
posted by emjaybee at 9:32 AM on June 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


But I do think there's a basic truism to the notion that a construction worker who wears uncomfortably baggy clothes that make it hard to move during his off time is sending a message about his status and the way he sees himself.

Similarly, a nurse who chooses to wear 4-inch stilettos for a night out with the girls.

It's a subtle fuck-you to the whole class structure and especially the capitalist labor/capital division.

I've also long felt that the "practical" tech industry uniform is more than just a utilitarian thing. I'm also pretty sure that a lot of first-wave feminists who adopted bloomers or new-agers in unisex kurtas are choosing those uniforms to signal something about themselves.

I'm pretty sure it's impossible to have purely utilitarian garments, if only because of the level of cultural noise about clothes.
posted by Sara C. at 9:39 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


A (possibly satirical) list of Don'ts for women riders from 1895 includes:
Don’t ask, “What do you think of my bloomers?”
and
Don’t discuss bloomers with every man you know.
posted by rhiannonstone at 10:27 AM on June 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh wait damn I missed that that was linked in the original FPP. Nevermind! I'm going to go talk about bloomers with every man I know.
posted by rhiannonstone at 10:28 AM on June 21, 2013


Huh, well I've never noticed bicycle face, but I definitely have noticed a phenomenon that I call "car face," where you get all flushed and blotchy looking over the course of a long car trip. I wonder if it's caused by VOCs from all the plastics in the car.
posted by HotToddy at 10:34 AM on June 21, 2013


rhiannonstone: "Oh wait damn I missed that that was linked in the original FPP. Nevermind! I'm going to go talk about bloomers with every man I know."

So, bloomers are kinda hot. What's your position on bustles and corsets?

Oh, so NOW you say you don't know me...
posted by Samizdata at 11:11 AM on June 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


I can't ride a bike. Dangerous to myself and bystanders if I do. I have worn dimije for years. I've lived in places with lots of wind, and dimije are a lot more comfortable than either a skirt or jeans. It also totally prevents up-skirt photos.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:24 AM on June 21, 2013


Sara C.: "I've also long felt that the "practical" tech industry uniform is more than just a utilitarian thing ... I'm pretty sure it's impossible to have purely utilitarian garments, if only because of the level of cultural noise about clothes."

Yes, precisely.

There's also the question of what's utilitarian in what circumstances. Sure, leotards are more comfortable to dance and move around in than clubwear, but ever tried to pee in a tiny stall while wrangling with a leotard?

Also, I think people tend to assume that feminine-coded clothing is frivolous by default, whereas masculine-coded clothing is practical and non-showy. E.g. the assumption that (modern) pants are unilaterally more practical than (modern) skirts, when really it depends how much freedom of movement/air circulation you want versus leg protection/insulation. By layering or not layering with different thickness tights I can wear the floral dress I'm wearing today four seasons of the year, whereas my plain denim jeans are far too hot for summer. Isn't a garment I can wear year-round more utilitarian?
posted by bettafish at 11:25 AM on June 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Katjusa Roquette: "I can't ride a bike. Dangerous to myself and bystanders if I do. I have worn dimije for years. I've lived in places with lots of wind, and dimije are a lot more comfortable than either a skirt or jeans. It also totally prevents up-skirt photos."

Sad face. Sad trombone.
posted by Samizdata at 1:37 PM on June 21, 2013


bettafish: "Sara C.: "I've also long felt that the "practical" tech industry uniform is more than just a utilitarian thing ... I'm pretty sure it's impossible to have purely utilitarian garments, if only because of the level of cultural noise about clothes."

Yes, precisely.

There's also the question of what's utilitarian in what circumstances. Sure, leotards are more comfortable to dance and move around in than clubwear, but ever tried to pee in a tiny stall while wrangling with a leotard?

Also, I think people tend to assume that feminine-coded clothing is frivolous by default, whereas masculine-coded clothing is practical and non-showy. E.g. the assumption that (modern) pants are unilaterally more practical than (modern) skirts, when really it depends how much freedom of movement/air circulation you want versus leg protection/insulation. By layering or not layering with different thickness tights I can wear the floral dress I'm wearing today four seasons of the year, whereas my plain denim jeans are far too hot for summer. Isn't a garment I can wear year-round more utilitarian?
"

Well, at a previous IT job, I got the site director to give me a exemption on the dress code, on the grounds slacks didn't make much sense when you did as much desk diving as I did. The jeans had to be clean, non-holey, etc.
posted by Samizdata at 1:38 PM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


From the first article:
A woman with a bicycle no longer had to depend on a man for transportation and she was free to come and go at will.
So am I to take it that a woman riding a horse cart would have been even more outrageous at the time? I'm trying to think what alternatives there were, and what rationalizations there were as to why women should never engage in them, either.
posted by RobotHero at 2:08 PM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


While going through one of my periodic phases of reading public domain novels with interesting-looking titles, I read Grant Allen's 1897 The Type-writer Girl (written under a female pseudonym). As I recall it didn't really go anywhere (ha!), but what did stick with me was that initial image of a modern young woman freed by having her own bicycle and typewriter to go out into the world to do as she pleased. Swap the typewriter for a laptop and you've got a similarly-idealised version of today.
posted by comealongpole at 3:50 PM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anybody who believes this is just an issue from the 19th century should be aware that it is a topic of current debate in Saudi Arabia. Women can now, apparently, get about on cycles - except that they have to confine themselves to parks, be accompanied by a male guardian and remain completely covered.

On my recent visit to the country I saw now cyclist of either gender - searing temperatures, cheap fuel and crazy drivers all make it a pretty unappealing option. If anybody is cycling then they will be doing so in the parks at night (when such places are crowded to the early hous)- and while avoiding the Mutawa'een.
posted by rongorongo at 4:04 PM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't know that it would have been "scandalous" for a woman to drive a horse cart, so much as the reality of various aspects of that behavior made it uncommon.

Firstly, due to laws like couverture, most women could not own enough property to have their own horse-drawn carts (I think this is even a thing in Little Women, I remember them constantly going on about how they need to get Laurie to go to whatever party because then they can ride in his cart and wear their impractical dancing shoes). A team of horses isn't like a car -- they need constant care and maintenance, which means that if you're a single woman with horses you're probably going to want to hire a stable boy, a groom, etc. in which case you've got a man to drive you around in your horse cart.

If you live in a city (and the bicycle was mainly a urban technology), you've also got to stable the horses, and have a carriage house on your property for your cart and related equipment.

The main way that the bicycle liberated women to have freedom of movement was via its role in urban life. There weren't many independently wealthy single women in the cities, with servants and horses and stables and carriage houses and all that, and once you're at that level of rare, you can probably do what you want, and people will whisper behind your back about being eccentric.

But in the industrial cities of the 19th century, there was an unprecedented number of single working class women. Those women obviously would never be able to afford a horse. But they might save up their factory wages to buy a bicycle. And thus, a generation of independent bloomer-wearing Velocipediennes was born...

The next thing you know, they'll be demanding the vote!
posted by Sara C. at 6:04 PM on June 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


that initial image of a modern young woman freed by having her own bicycle and typewriter to go out into the world to do as she pleased.

I was really hoping this was what Downton Abbey was going to be about, and when it didn't become a turn-of-the-century Thelma & Louise with Lady Sybil and that redheaded maid girl who is now Ygritte on Game Of Thrones running off with a motorcar and a typewriter to make it on their own in the big city, I pretty much stopped watching in despair.

Now, THAT would be a TV show, goddammit.
posted by Sara C. at 6:06 PM on June 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


YOU GUYS:

Last night's Final Jeopardy category was Transportation and the answer was "Susan B. Anthony said that this 'has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.'"

There were two male contestants and one female contestant. The men had zero clue (their guesses were "roller skates" and "the Sunday drive" - I was yelling at them for being idiots, but to be fair the answer may not have occurred to me if I hadn't read this thread). The woman got it right and came back from second place to win.
posted by naoko at 7:06 AM on June 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


That is what I was dreaming of happening when I was a Jeopardy! contestant, but sadly it was a sports question.

GO JEOPARDY! LADY
posted by Sara C. at 8:11 AM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


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