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Part 2: In Praise of Bicycling and Women

Part 2: In Praise of Bicycling and Women by Nineteenth-Century American Women: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Frances Willard

Part 1 Of this two part series can be found here.

As she addresses young people who may not be able to “ride away on these machines whenever and as far as they wish,” Robins Pennell encourages adults to give their young charges rides in tandem cycles and she exhorts boys to take up riding the ordinary tall bicycles or penny-farthings. More than once she cites Thomas Stevens who rode his ordinary cycle around the world as a model for young men to imitate. She even exclaims at one point: “If I were a boy I would ride nothing else” (734).  In fact, until the end of the 1880s and the advent of the safety bicycle with the two wheels of the same size and a dropped frame, women could ride only the front seat of tricycle tandems or the side seat of a ‘sociable’ bicycle, if they wanted to wear the customary long skirts and maintain the respectable ‘feminine’ demure that society expected of them. Robins Pennell does acknowledge, in truth, that with the advent of the safety bicycle, the ordinary was losing popularity.

Robins Pennell highlights the recent building of a type of safety bicycle especially for girls and women. As she encourages girls to learn to mount such bicycles “by practice,” she mentions a new invention by two or three manufacturers in England called a safety attachment, “by which the machine can be steadied and kept at a standstill while the rider mounts as if it were a tricycle” as a way to solve the obvious and controversial issue of  “a girl’s skirts [that] are so in her way, and are likely to catch,” (736-7).

When Robins Pennell published this essay the controversy about the appropriate riding dress for women had barely begun. She limits her contribution to the public dialogue on this issue by mentioning that the right cycling underwear should be either flannel or wool and that “a girl’s riding dress ought to be made of some good sound cloth or serge that will stand rain and mud and dust. Gray is the best color” (739). The debate on women’s appropriate clothing, both through popular magazines and in medical reports began in the 1880s and was to last more than a decade, since the question underlying this discourse was the suitability of bicycling itself for middle and upper class women and the appropriateness of female mobility. While men’s riding costumes, including the tight breeches that had not been fashionable for almost a century, gained easy societal acceptance, women’s riding dress provoked a long and at times acrimonious debate. In the 1880s, for instance there were objections to women wearing knickers even if they were hidden under a dress or skirt (‘Ladies Cycling Costumes’ The Wheelman 1979, 2)

In the 1890s American urbanites were shocked by images of women riding bicycles in bloomers, although this piece of clothing had already briefly appeared in the 1850s, when Amelia Jenks Bloomer had proposed it as one of the rational dresses promoted by the Temperance movement. Bloomers were brought back in the 1890s as cycling costumes, and even Susan B. Anthony believed that bloomers were “the proper things for wheeling,” since “safety, as well as modesty, demands bloomers or extremely short skirts to avoid laces and skirts to catch in the wheel”(The World, 10). This piece of clothing, however, had a short and troubled history, since in the mid-1890s they were discredited as too unwomanly even by the editors of The Wheelwoman (Sims 134). As an example of social ostracism to women wearing any sort of pants, there are reports that in 1895 bloomer-wearing women were barred from dances in Chicago parks (The Wheelman 1979, 2).

Since the bloomer was considered too ambiguous and indiscreet as a female costume, in order to make cycling for women easier, alternatives to it proliferated, such as “the health corset or bicycling waist,” which was a much looser corset than the ordinary one, the divided skirt, that allowed more freedom of movements while riding and looked like a full skirt off the wheel, or devices to shorten skirts while riding. By the end of the 1890s “shortened skirts had gained acceptance as the best cycling dress for women” (Sims 132).

If we agree with Susan B. Anthony, who had said in her interview with Nellie Bly: “you can’t carry two thoughts before the people at the same time. One or the other will suffer,” we may ascribe the demise of the bloomer to the attempt of pushing forward two ‘radical’ ideas at the same time, such as acceptance of female bicycle riding and a controversial riding costume (The World, 10). In this instance society accepted more readily women riding “a wheel,” while demanding that they keep the unambiguous and customary feminine appearance that was marked by skirt-wearing. Furthermore, in order to be “neat,” or “trig,” women had to wear a cycling costume in plain colors and accompanied by an appropriate hat and jacket (Sims 131-4).

From the sketches that Joseph Pennell left us of Elizabeth Robins Pennell we deduce that she never wore anything but long skirts and plain colors while riding a bicycle, thus conforming to her society’s demands of an appropriate costume, while transgressing the taboo of female mobility. In her essay “On Cycling” Robins Pennell advises anyone wanting to purchase a wheel to learn the details of the bicycle being considered. Although she confesses to having never ridden an ordinary high wheel cycle, she provides detailed instructions and images on how to mount it. She also describes how to mount and dismount a safety bicycle and a tricycle, encouraging her young readers to learn all they can “about the construction of the machine” and to learn to ride it safely (738).

Robins Pennell encourages young people, especially boys, not “to break every other boy’s record,” but rather to ride well, that is “to really see, know and love the country through which you wheel.” Robins Pennell’s last comments in her article become a poetic celebration of the virtues and rewards of cycling. Shedding some of her usual reticence, consonant to her Philadelphia upbringing, she exposes her feelings, surely shared by most cyclists of all times, when she writes: “I myself believe that there is no more healthful or more stimulating form of exercise; there is no physical pleasure greater than that of being borne along, at a good pace, over a hard, smooth road by your own exertions.” As she depicts the beautiful and ever-changing details of nature that the would-be cyclist will be able to witness from a cycle, she reminds the boys and girls and their elders that such journeys will also teach “much of history and romance of other days”(739). She concludes by summarizing the reasons her readers should prefer cycling over other sports, while professing her own love for this activity: “It is for these reasons, for the pleasure of motion, the beauty to be found in every land, the many associations by the way, that I love cycling and should be glad if every boy and girl loved it with me” (739).

The benefits of health and knowledge should, according to Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s implicit message, offset any guilt of transgressive behavior in a woman’s pleasure in motion or in reaching a destination on her own physical means. Our ‘proper’ Philadelphia lady opens the way to the ‘raging 90s’ when cycling became the ‘craze of the decade’ in the US as well as in many European countries.

Frances E. Willard was born in 1839 and, by her own account, “ran wild” while growing up on her parents’ farm in Wisconsin until the age of sixteen. She attended a female college and became a teacher in Methodist schools and the Dean of women at Northwestern University. She eventually resigned this latter post, however, when the President of the university, her former fiancé, did not cease to undermine her authority. Soon after, she became the president of the Illinois Chapter of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union (CWTU), and later the president of the national Association.

The temperance movement was founded in the early 1800 and spread rapidly under the influence of churches. The CWTI was created in1874 in Cleveland, Ohio, with the aim of restricting or legally abolishing the sale and manufacturing of liquor. Women associated with this movement recognized the close connection between alcoholism or excessive consumption of alcohol and family problems such as financial hardships and physical and/or psychological abuse of women and children. Women, being financially dependent on men and their work, took an active role in protecting their families’ welfare, thus finding strength and confidence in their own resources. Willard described the work of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union as tending “more toward the liberation of women than . . . toward the extinction of saloon” (11).

After the creation of the World CWTU, Willard met, among others, Lady Somerset, who led the British branch of the association, and the two women developed a strong friendship. In 1892, shaken by her mother’s death and exhausted by work, Willard accepted Lady Somerset’s invitation to spend some time at Eastnor Castle, Lady Somerset home in Britain. Upon her arrival, Willard found a gift from Lady Somerset, a bicycle that she named Gladys, “the harbinger of health and happiness.”

While Willard had successfully ridden the American tricycle that manufacturer Pope had presented her in 1886, she had never tried the newer model of the ‘wheel,’ which had pneumatic tires of the same size and was a close predecessor to the modern bicycle. At age 53, Willard decided to master riding a bicycle as a way to teach herself and others the lessons inherent to such activity. In her temperance writings Willard had already claimed the benefits of bicycling for young men, who, according to her, would find in this exercise a “natural exhilaration as much more delightful” than the unnatural pleasure of alcohol. She also believed that young men would find cycling amusing, a way to “invest their superabundant animal spirits” (18).

While in these earlier writings Willard was concerned about keeping men away from the temptations of saloons, in her 1895 writing she recounted the details of her mastery of cycling, as she had a different objective: convince women that cycling is an appropriate exercise or activity for them. Aware of the “enslaving” pressure that public opinion, which she defines as “the speech of people,” exerts on women, Willard provides some strong reasons for women to take up cycling. She mentions society’s acceptance of more and more women traveling alone and farther from home, she recognizes the fact that the current craze of cycling has won over even the members of the French aristocracy and suggests that learning to cycle teaches the laws of gravity and equilibrium. More compelling are the comparisons and the relationship that Willard makes between learning to cycle and life lessons. She writes in fact that: “I found a whole philosophy of life in the wooing and the winning of my bicycle” (31).

Willard recounts how the ‘wooing’ of her bicycle was accompanied by several failures that she compares to those she experienced in life. She thus enumerates them: “a certain fearful looking for of judgment; a too vivid realization of the uncertainty of everything about me; an underlying doubt- at once, however (and this is all that saved me), matched and overcome by the determination not to give in to it” (28). The strong determination to overcome the obstacles facing her, be it the laws of balancing her body on the bicycle or life adversities, brought her to the definition of personal will as the “wheel of the mind,” and that “hardihood of spirit, persistence of will and patience” are the same qualities and virtues necessary to master a bicycle as well as life (31-32).

A discriminating student herself, Willard criticizes and identifies the ability of the people who helped her learn how to ride a bicycle. She defines her best teacher as the one who “helped her help herself” by standing behind her, ready to support her only when she really needed help (49). This facilitator and encouraging helper gave her finally the needed confidence to ride and ‘conquer’ Gladys on her own. As she ponders why she decided to learn riding at such a late stage in her life she lists health as the obvious reason, thanks to the exercise outdoors, but she also adds that she “did it as an act of grace, if not of actual religion” (73).

It is hard to associate on the literal level the activity of cycling with any orthodox spiritual act, so we are left wondering what Willard meant by her final statement. Is she perhaps evoking the same transcendental feeling that made Susan B. Anthony exclaim, as recorded by Nellie Bly, how much she rejoiced every time she saw a woman riding a bicycle? Anthony also suggested the emotions that a woman on a bicycle probably experienced: “It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. It makes her feel as if she were independent. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood” (The World 10). While it is difficult for twenty-first century readers to fully understand the impact of such ordinary activity as bicycling on women’s lives, we need to appreciate its importance in the social and historical context of nineteenth-century’s fin-de-siècle sexual politics, practice and ideology. The image of a middle or upper class woman, outside of the domestic walls, using her own physical power to benefit from mobility in space and time was, to pioneer women of the feminist movement, nothing short of a miraculous act.


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The Pennells