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Wed May 27, 2015, 01:38 PM

How The Bicycle Liberated Victorian Women & Kick-Started American Feminism

Despite the era’s prudish, repressed reputation, the Victorians loved a good craze — the weirder, the better. Well-to-do men and women alike found themselves gripped by fashionable momentary obsessions with novelties, from blue-and-white porcelain to orchids to roller skates to spiritual seances. When the late 1870s brought the so-called “Ordinary” or penny farthing bicycle (the epitome of an old-timey bike, with a front wheel many times larger than the rear) into the public eye, the comical-looking contraption was a sensation.

Bicycle mania swept the nation, and the advent of the more manageable “Safety” bicycle — named for its relative safety compared to the high-wheeled penny farthing — meant that even women could get in on the fun. While today it seems completely natural to hop a bike and hit the road, the advent of the bicycle had a hugely liberating (and controversial) impact on women’s lives; for the first time, there was a way for them to leave their houses and embrace their own autonomy without facing social suicide.

A woman born during the Victorian era had precious few options. Middle- and upper-class ladies were expected to marry, give birth to babies (preferably boys), entertain guests, and keep a respectable household — that’s it. A proper lady’s place was in the home, where she whiled away her days strapped into a suffocating corset and cumbersome hoop skirt, minding the servants, popping out children, and serving as an ornamental object for her (hopefully rich) husband to either cossett or ignore as it suited him. Women weren’t meant to exercise their bodies or their minds, which led to generations of frail creatures whose lives were governed by fainting spells and striving for an arsenic-white complexion, no matter how much they secretly yearned to write or debate or explore.

Those who ran afoul of these social conventions ran considerable risk of ostracization and/or "spinsterhood" — a fate which, back then, meant a life of poverty and loneliness. However, once the bicycle entered the picture, all of these bored, idle housewives and daughters were suddenly given a safe, respectable route out of their velvet prisons. They grabbed those handlebars like drowning people straining towards life preservers. As an 1896 issue of Munsey’s Magazine explained, "To men, the bicycle...was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world."
http://www.refinery29.com/women-victorian-era-society-bike-riding

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Reply How The Bicycle Liberated Victorian Women & Kick-Started American Feminism (Original post)
ismnotwasm May 2015 OP
marym625 May 2015 #1
Blue Owl May 2015 #2
CrispyQ May 2015 #3

Response to ismnotwasm (Original post)

Wed May 27, 2015, 01:57 PM

1. "....  a steed upon which they rode into a new world." 

Awesome!

K&R!

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Response to ismnotwasm (Original post)

Wed May 27, 2015, 02:17 PM

2. two wheels > high heels

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Response to ismnotwasm (Original post)

Wed May 27, 2015, 03:01 PM

3. Wonderful article!

I'm sure if they'd known it would lead to a feminist revolution, they would have passed laws forbidding women to ride.

Thanks for sharing.

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