How Bicycles Changed Women’s Lives
This March, we celebrated Women’s History Month by looking at how the invention of the bicycle revolutionised freedom for women, offering them strength and inspiration, from its invention until now. Here are some of the most impactful women in cycling history—and some of my favourite quotes—that make me proud every time I get on the saddle.
Opening Up a New World
“I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world.”
— Frances E. Willard, women’s suffragist and educator
For a lot of us, learning to ride a bicycle is one of our earliest memories of personal autonomy. As a young girl on a bike, I was as free as a spinning top as I wobbled uncontrollably down the street, suddenly and completely in charge of my own direction—my own destiny. From that very first ride, I realised that this was a place where I had control. It was only my feet on the coaster brakes, my hands on the handlebar. Nothing could stop me (except my parents or an intersection).
I have to believe that this was the same feeling Frances Willard had when she was astride the early “safety bicycle” (a bike with equal or nearly equal wheels) in 1885. As bikes began to crowd the streets of America, they transformed women’s lives. Women now had an accessible option for independent travel, but also, as anyone who’s ever ridden a bike can confirm, riding bikes changes the way you see yourself in the world. It gives you power.
Once they got on bicycles, women traveled farther and started to dress more practically; they were literally moving forward completely under their own power. A girl on a bike in the 1800s was a giant middle finger to people everywhere who were telling women what they couldn’t do. In 1894, Annie Cohen Kopchovsky became the first woman to ride a bicycle around the world, simply because a man made a bet that it couldn’t be done.
Riding a bike demanded a certain level of moxie and self-determination that hadn’t been offered to women so easily before. They invite their rider to take up space in the street and in the world, and that’s exactly what women did with them.
Riding for Women’s Rights
“Cease to be a drudge. Seek to be an artist.” —Mary McLeod Bethune
The introduction of the bicycle to America in 1885 was a huge catalyst for women’s rights and autonomy. We took ourselves down the street on solo errands and social trips, and began to envision how much we could accomplish under our own power. Once women found their individual freedom astride a bicycle, they began to fill the streets and find one another. Through many years of work and awareness, they formed women’s rights organisations and suffragist groups, incrementally gaining ground and supporters for women’s rights and equality.
Almost 40 years after the bicycle became a common mode of transit, one of the biggest revolutionaries for Black women’s rights was making waves atop her bicycle: Mary McLeod Bethune, director of the Negro Division of the National Youth Administration under President Franklin Roosevelt. She rode her bike from house to house throughout East Florida to raise money to pay the poll tax and register Black voters. She helped at least 185 women (63 of them Black women) sign up to vote for the first time in Daytona after the 19th amendment was passed in 1920. Despite receiving frequent death threats and being the target of several Ku Klux Klan demonstrations, she continued to fully send it, opening one of the first schools in the U.S. for young Black women—the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls.
Mary McLeod Bethune covered ground, connected people, and made things truly happen in her community—all from the seat of her bicycle. More than 100 years later, women are now the majority of voters, with about 9.7 million more women than men voting in 2020 U.S. elections.
New Clothes and New Hopes
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” —Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Bicycles have always dictated the fashion of their riders even since the 1890s. Once women began traveling by bike frequently, it became obvious that the flouncy, hefty dresses were a huge hindrance. From this conundrum, bloomers or the “split skirt,” invented in the 1850s Amelia Jenks Bloomer, were popularised. Suffragist Elizabeth Miller Smith was one of the first women to wear them in public, and she did so bravely; many women who chose to don this fashion style received incredible backlash from their communities, with some even getting arrested.
Another article of clothing under scrutiny during the cycling boom was the corset, which was laced tightly around a woman’s torso in order to create a more hourglass shape. Not only was it extremely restrictive for movement, it negatively affected the wearer’s breathing and digestion. As more women began biking, this led to the invention of the “sports corset,” which functioned more like a sports bra to keep breasts in place while still facilitating free movement. By around 1920, corsets had gone way out of fashion.
Iconic suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton had supporting words for women who chose more freeing forms of clothing: “The question is no longer, how do you look, but woman, how do you feel?”
To be a woman no longer meant you had to be something pretty to look at and incapable of physical activity. This shift in perspective allowed women to expand their sense of self beyond beauty and live their lives as they saw fit, without being held back by a chafing skirt or judging chaperone.
Women’s Cycling’s Come a Long Way
“I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world.” —Suffragist leader Susan B. Anthony, 1896
As a woman who rides a bike, I love this quote to pieces because it’s exactly how I feel as I ride just about any bicycle: emancipated, self-reliant, and feminine. Bikes changed what was available to us in our day-to-day lives, updated our clothing options, and helped us achieve other victories of social justice as we work our way toward gender equality. Through all of this, bikes have redefined what it means to be a woman.
We’ve come a long way since the 1800s. Once pioneers like Annie Cohen Kopchovsky began to push the limits of what could be done on a bike, women haven’t stopped using bicycles to explore what they are truly capable of. Nearly 100 years after her ride around the world, women’s cycling was added to the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 1984.
Women such as Juliana Furtado and Jacquie Phelan also began to take mountain biking by storm, showing that women could take on rowdy, athletic, daring bike races as well. Pro freerider Katie Holden, who organises the women’s freeride competition Red Bull Formation, told Singletracks.com,“It’s one thing if it’s one woman doing it, but once you have a group of women who are really performing to the highest degree, collectively as a whole, it makes quite a statement.”
And that statement is this: We are here, we are strong, and we are more capable than we ever knew. We are pushing ever forward toward intersectional equality, respect, and inclusivity. We’re seeking new peaks, bigger air, and stronger sisterhood. On bikes. Together.