“Fighting on two wheels and two fronts”
By Laura Melamed
What’s the link between women’s history and bicycles?
Let me tell you what I think of bicycling,” said Susan B. Anthony in 1896, “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
The bicycle became popular in the late 1800s after clunky, early precursors were redesigned.
“It brought about a cosmic shift in women’s private and public lives,” said Sue Macy in her book “Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom with a Few Flat Tires Along the Way,” published by National Geographic in 2011.
“Working women were hidden away,” said Macy, “laboring anonymously in factories and mills during the Industrial Revolution in the United States.” Wealthy women were home, confined to corsets and long skirts.
With the advent of the bicycle, Macy noted, things began to change. Women started spending time outdoors. Women biked on city streets. Women biked on country roads. They were socializing. They were being seen. They were being heard. Women were becoming a presence in public life.
“Bicycles promised freedom to women long accustomed to relying on men for transportation,” said Kenna Howat, Program Assistant at the National Women’s History Museum, in her post “Pedaling the Path to Freedom.”
Avid bicycle rider and accomplished photographer Alice Austen rode her bike around Manhattan and Staten Island with almost 50 pounds of camera equipment so she could take pictures.
The first woman to run for president in the U.S. with a full-fledged campaign was Belva Lockwood.
Also a lawyer, Lockwood rode an English tricycle to her job in Washington D.C.
Around the track and around the world
Some women competed in official bicycle races, which were gaining in popularity. Women raced against men. Women raced against women. Races were often 100 miles around and around a track. Some races lasted for days. Macy’s book gives an engaging account of these competitions.
Annie Cohen Kopchovsky rode her bicycle around the world when two wealthy men wagered on whether a woman could really do it. After two quick bicycle lessons, she started in 1894 and completed the journey in 1895. More famously known as Annie Londonderry, she started with no money and earned $5000 along the way.
Age is no limit
53-year-old Frances Willard learned to ride a bike for the first time in the 1890s. It took her 3 months.
As she learned to ride a bike she learned about life, which she discussed in her book “A Wheel within A Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle with Some Reflections By the Way” published in 1895.
Willard named her bicycle “Gladys.”
She felt the bicycle restored a sense of balance in her life and helped her connect to nature.
Willard had previously been a university president where she was instrumental in the fight for women’s rights, including the right to vote. Fighting on two wheels and two fronts
Confronting gender and racial barriers in the late 19th century, Katherine T. Knox was a transportation pioneer, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).
Born to an African American father and white mother in 1874, Knox was passionate about bicycling and she rode a bicycle designed for men. Knox joined the League of American Wheelmen, a mostly male bicycling organization, in 1893. A year later, the Wheelmen created a “whites only” rule, barring African Americans from joining. Knox challenged the rule head-on, showing up outside the Wheelmen’s annual meeting in 1895, asserting she had the right to attend. Publicity escalated as Newspapers covered her protest. A debate opened up on the ethics of a color ban and in 1899 the ruling was removed.
Wear and tear
The bicycle helped women win the right to wear less restrictive clothing. Weighed down with petticoats and corsets, women’s activity was limited.
When skirts started getting caught in bicycle wheels, bloomers caught on as bicycle wear.
Sort of like harem pants, bloomers were originally invented in the middle of the 19th century, but soon went out of fashion. Women wearing pants was simply too radical.
With the invention of the bicycle, women had more reason to fight for the right to wear practical clothing.
Later, they managed to ditch the corset, too.
Today in Baltimore
Bikemore: Baltimore City’s bicycle advocacy organization, Bikemore, is led by a woman. Liz Cornish is Executive Director and fights for better bike lanes and infrastructure for all road users, taking extra care to protect cyclists and pedestrians.
Black Girls Do Bike: Women of color and their supporters who share a passion for cycling encourage women and girls of color to bike.
Handlebar Café is owned by pro-cyclist and Mountain Bike Hall of Famer, Marla Streb. A Baltimore native and winner of multiple cycling competitions, Streb also taught a bike-commuter workshop at UB in 2015. She’s been on the cover of “Outside Magazine” and is the author of “Downhill: The Life Story of a Gravity Goddess.”
Diva Rides is a local women’s cycling group for beginners and folks recovering from injuries.
Crank Mavens Monday Night Riders is an informal 10-mile bike ride with varying routes and rest stops.
Women Bike Baltimore is a Facebook forum for discussing women’s issues and cycling.
Liberation and transportation at UB
What do women at UB think about bicycling? Do they feel emancipated by pedaling around?
To find out, I emailed several UB students, alumni, faculty and staff.
“Biking is a huge part of my physical and emotional health,” said Jean Buckler, a senior in UB’s Environmental Sustainability and Human Ecology program. “I get a rush from the adrenaline and endorphins my body produces during and after my commute every day! I much prefer that over driving a car that relies on fossil fuels, and having to pay for parking every day.”
“I ride my bike because I don’t have a car, it’s faster than walking and it tends to be more reliable than mass transit,” said Amber Adams, a senior at UB working on a degree in Information Technology. Adams said she considers bicycling more than a means of emancipation. “I’ve been riding bikes for years, competitively and leisurely.” She rides mainly in warm weather and considers bicycling a way to exercise without too much effort.
“My choice to bike has opened up options for me that I’d not imagined ten years back,” said Simone Christian who graduated from UB in 2010 with an MA in Publications Design. A teacher at UB from 2013 to 2015, Christian rode her bicycle to class. She gave up her car to help protect the environment.
Every summer, Christian bikes through Maryland, DC and Virginia with her husband. They pack light. To reduce her carbon footprint, Christian limits plane trips to once a year.
“This lifestyle upgrade means we enjoy the luxury of travel (and nice hotels each night), the adventure of going off the beaten path, meeting new people who are genuinely doing what they love–opposite of sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with frustrated families and bawling babies in New- ark International, awaiting a late connection—Biking is freedom.”
“From the time I could sit up straight my mom strapped me on the back of a bike and rode all over the city” said Britt McMurray, who is working on an MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts at UB. “I saw the entire city from the back of a bike. Today when I bike I feel like I can go on forever and never stop. I like biking along canals that stretch for hundreds of miles. I like biking over the gnarly roots of trees and muddy patches and doing my utmost not to fall into the river. I like to bike when the sun is hanging low and it’s time to go home, but I don’t. Instead, I linger, and pedal slow and even throughout the city.”
“Wearing sandals and a dress, I commute slowly, rolling down Roland Avenue and old Falls Road,” said Claudia Diamond, Assistant Dean, UB School of Law. “I take the bike path hugging Jones Falls and hiding its wildlife, both person and animal, I sometimes ride with no hands. My bike? Pale blue with a woven wicker basket; handlebars upright. I ride with the wearers of fancy pants and clip-on shoes and those who sprout hipster beards, insisting on no helmets. Speeding past me, the young man on my left says, ‘You go, girl.’ And indeed I do.”
Photo courtesy of Laura Melamed