> Les numéros > Scumgrrrls N° 7 - Printemps / Spring 2005

Women on Bike

"The mere act of riding a bicycle is not in itself sinful and if it is the only means of reaching the church on a Sunday, it may be excusable." Such was the recommendation of a women’s magazine to a young lady in 1885.

It is hard to imagine today the burden women took up when they joined in the bicycle craze. Their movements were hampered by crinoline and voluminous sleeves, which could weigh up to 20 kg, and their respiration restrained by the corset ; the only velocipede considered suitable for a woman in the 1880s was a tricycle, a clumsy machine of supposedly another 25 to 30 kg, for it allowed a "decorous" posture - which in practice was rather the reverse : "The dress was constantly riding up over the knees, each alternate stroke lifting it higher ... some riders sewed a considerable weight of shot into the lower edge, whilst others fastened the front of the skirt to their boots or shoes ..." In fact, most of the accidents of women cyclists were due to their garment caught in the mechanism of their machines. The fast and lightweight highwheelers were completely out of reach. Not only were they not manageable with late 19th centuryclothes, but society would never have accepted a woman in such a revealing and manly posture.

Medicine supported victorian prudery : of course, the saddle is in contact with the woman’s genitals. This was believed to cause a permanent stimulation, which together with the constant vibration and the movement in fresh air would overstimulate women’s libido. On the other hand, medicine could not close its eyes before the effects this exercise had on women’s health, and women were admitted to cycling halls, where they could practice without being seen by men - because, and this was the third obstacle, women on bicycles were regarded as ugly. Women sweating and distorting their faces while ascending a hill, women muscled, women scratched and injured after an accident lacked this fragile sweetness bourgeois society held as a female ideal. Once women got up and became mobile, what would come next ?

Thus, manners, beauty, fashion and science worked together to scare women away from bikeriding. And yet, from the very beginning women - middle - and upper class women - claimed the bicycle, or better : the freedom it represented, and left nannies, governesses and, horror !, husbands behind. Women experimented with their clothes, tried split-up skirts, knickerbockers, or simply put on their male family members’ trousers. And slowly, the society’s attitude towards women’s dressrules began to change. In 1899, an English hotel owner was sued by the Cyclist’s Touring Club, for having refused to serve lunch to a woman cyclist wearing knickerbockers. From France, women’s trousers - in Great Britain called "reasonable dress" - swapped over to the rest of the cycling world. The early Austrian feminist R. Mayreder stated that the bicycle had done more for women’s emancipation than the activities of women’s rights movement.

The skirt, though, could be rescued with the invention of the lady bike (the one without the top tube). This frame construction is less stable than the diamond shaped frame used for men’s bikes, and accessoires, especially brakes, are more complicated to fix. It allows for a "graceful", more upright position with the rider more exposed to the air stream. The first lady’s bike appeared on the market before 1900, and it has been there ever since, although, if you think about it, there is no reason for it any more to exist.

FR « Le simple fait de rouler à bicyclette n’est pas un péché en soi et si c’est le seul moyen de se rendre à l’Eglise le dimanche, on peut l’excuser ». Telle était la recommandation d’un magazine pour femmes à une jeune dame en 1885. Une petite histoire des femmes à vélo.

NL

"Als dusdanig is fietsen geen zonde. Indien het de enige manier is om op zondag naar de kerk te gaan valt deze activiteit zelfs aan te bevelen". Zo klonk de commentaar in een vrouwenmagazine, anno 1885. Een korte historiek van vrouwen en fietsen.