I know that it was the bicycle, not the automobile, that first replaced the horse as a personal means of transportation. I had never thought much, however, about the fact that it was revolutionary in a very different way.
So here is some fascinating information I uncovered while exploring the history of the bicycle.
It was still believed in the late 1800s that women were constitutionally weak creatures, a condition that caused them to tire quickly when they walked. The problem was, however, their clothing, not their constitutions. In 1888 The Rational Dress Society, a British suffragette organization used the bicycle as its symbol to protest against fashions of the day. It was possible for women’s undergarments to weigh more than seven pounds. Some of their clothing was actually weighted and they were still wearing hooped skirts and corsets. Such clothing restricted movement as well as breathing. In fact, the corset should have been more properly called a straitjacket. Women who dressed comfortably were considered lewd and dangerous and comfortable, loose clothing was a must for cycling.
The potential for freedom of movement of the body as well as freedom of movement from place to place led to freedom of thought, and it was some of history’s first women cyclists who became political activists. These women were responsible for many freedoms we now take for granted, including the right to vote.
Heated controversy arose from the belief that the bicycle promoted immodesty in woman and would harm their reproductive systems and could ultimately lead to death.
It was believed that a woman riding a bicycle was an assault on the moral fabric of society, particularly if she were unaccompanied or unchaperoned. Women could be sexually aroused by riding, thus leading to the habit of masturbation. Because of this concern, one could buy a "hygienic bicycle seat withy a special recession for a woman’s genitalia. However, any respectable woman would consider riding a bicycle to be utterly unacceptable, even immoral, in spite of the "hygienic" seat. It was most clearly a threat to the very moral fiber of decent society.
Bicycles were revolutionary with regards to women’s fashion. Cycling challenged traditional gender norms, and women who cycled redefined femininity, female beauty and sexuality. Women began to consider bicycles as freedom machines because they experienced personal mobility and the thrill of speed.
They were instrumental in changing society’s ideas of acceptable female behavior and dispelled myths of helplessness and fragility.
My exploration of the bicycle led me to the story of an American woman named Annie Londonderry Cohen Kopchovsky who in 1894 became the first woman to ride around the world. Peter Zheutlin, her great-grandnephew, wrote the book Around the World on Two Wheels documenting the story of his aunt:
“On June 25, 1894, Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a young mother of three small children, stood before a crowd of 500 friends, family, suffragists and curious onlookers at the Massachusetts State House. Then, declaring she would circle the world, she climbed onto a 42-pound Columbia bicycle and “sailed away like a kite down Beacon Street. Fifteen months later one New York newspaper called it 'the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman'."
"The trip was reportedly set in motion by a wager that required Annie not only to circle the earth by bicycle in 15 months, but to earn $5000 en route as well. This was no mere test of a woman's physical endurance and mental fortitude; it was a test of a woman's ability to fend for herself in the world."
"Annie turned every Victorian notion of female propriety on its ear. Not only did she abandon temporarily her role of wife and mother, but for most of the journey she rode a man's bicycle attired in a man's riding suit. She earned her way selling photographs of herself, appearing as an attraction in stores, and by turning herself into a mobile billboard by renting space on her body and her bicycle to advertisers eager to benefit from this colorful spectacle on wheels."
"Outlandish, brash, and charismatic—a master of public relations, a consummate self-promoter, and a skillful creator of her own myth—Annie was a woman of boundless chutzpah. Indeed, as Annie Cohen Kopchovsky reinvented herself as a new woman—the daring globetrotter and adventurer "Mlle. Annie Londonderry"—she became one of the most celebrated women of the gay '90s. Yet until now her remarkable story has been lost to history.” (Peter Zheutlin)
Praise for Around the World on Two Wheels:
“[T]hanks to Peter Zheutlin, Annie Londonderry Kopchovsky will be remembered as a woman who transcended the limitations of her time and displayed independence and bravery, making an important contribution to Jewish women’s history in particular, and feminist history in general.” ~ The Jerusalem Report
I ride a motorcycle. I wonder what they would have thought about that?
Until next time,
Ingrid Kincaid is an internationally known storyteller, teacher and spiritual mentor. She is an intuitive reader of ancient runes. She gently shows her clients how to tap into their own inner wisdom by weaving together creativity, spirituality and ancient knowing. Ingrid is available for interviews, private consultations and group presentations. You can contact her at Ingrid@IngridKincaid.com.