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The Bicycle, Photography, and the Women's Movement of the 1890s

History has credited the bicycle at the end of the nineteenth century with drawing women in the United States out of Victorian Age societal norms and moving the country into an era of Progressivism. The bicycle provided women access to previously foreign independence, giving them the ability to travel where they wanted whenever they felt like doing so. It changed the way they dressed, replacing cumbersome Victorian dresses with comfortable bicycle-friendly clothing. Bicycling created the 'new woman' of the 1890s, but the bicycle alone did not carry forward the decade's wave of feminism.

The United States Victorian Age is defined as the period from 1830 - 1890. It is marked by a significant increase in industrialization countrywide, one that created a family dynamic in which the man left for work each day, and his wife stayed home to keep the house and raise their children. The prevalent belief in this society was that a husband's role was to be the sole provider as well as the protector of his family and the wife's purpose was to prepare their children for adulthood while keeping alive "the higher values of Christian morality." This picture of the dutiful wife wasn't only an 'in private' ideal, but expected in public settings as well.

The mass production of the 'safety' bicycle in the mid-1880s changed how the country traveled. Travel of any significance was no longer cost prohibitive. Travelers no longer had to own a horse or pay daily travel rates for a horse an carriage ride. Even those that walked took to the bicycle, following the prevalent belief in medical circles at the time that bicycling expended one-sixth of the energy of walking in similar distances. It was an especially valuable tool to the women in the United States, drawing them out of their homes and into the public on their own. The bicycle gave young upper and middle-class women an "unprecedented degree of unchaperoned freedom and independence."

Women who rode bicycles, an increasingly popular daily occurrence on sidewalks and streets throughout the country, found their clothes to be inhibitive to the enjoyment of their new past-time. Soon clothing better suited for bicycle riding replaced the tight corsets and long flowing dresses of the Victorian Age. However, this change wasn't universal. Upper-class women also rode bicycles but did so without the want for public expression that their middle-class sisterhood relished. For middle-class women, their clothing became an expression of who they were and promoted their independence by the public advocacy of dress that went against prevalent social constraints. However, it was far short of being the single catalyst for reform that history has placed at its feet.

Commercial photography, a recent invention that grew in popularity alongside the bicycle painted a different picture of bicycling and female bicyclists. The women in these pictures understood their power and did what they could to frame them in what they considered to be a necessary light. It was a public opportunity to "construct and promote an identity of their own choice." Each photograph showed a different woman with a different take on what independence meant. These various declarations kept the movement from being defined by a singular voice. Those photographed attempted to re-capture control of their message and through carefully crafted public expressions helped empower future generations to strive for similar heights. In doing so, it pushed forward the message of equality to women of all ages and was the beginning of the end for the country's Victorian Age.

Female riders found contemporaries in the photographers that took their photographs. The advent of the Kodak 1 in 1889 gave women another opportunity to enter the public sector. Many, longing for a chance to join the professional world, took to photography. These women, pushing for equal rights by wanting to do something as radical as becoming professionals, used cameras to help promote the grander cause of women's equality. Many of these women supported the concept of the ‘New Woman’ and looked to paint her in a positive light. Where men in these same journalistic and advertising roles tended to show female bicyclists in less provocative ways - including long dresses that covered riders’ ankles, females in similar public media roles were willing to show women bicyclists in a truer light - with bloomers, riding men's’ style bicycles, and in some cases even smoking.

Women bicyclists began to mirror the images found in the photos, traveling in clothes that were formerly part of the fringe element but now considered increasingly mainstream. Advertisers, who once treated women as an afterthought, took notice and began to cater to this type of new woman in their advertisements. The early part of the decade satirized these women bicyclists as mannish outsiders, while the later decade celebrated the role they played in bringing about the changes happening in the society-at-large. Advertisers made no social determinations as they began to showcase women in their ads, even showing them in clothing more indicative of the period. The popularity of the women's bicycle photographs helped push their message into mainstream society. At that point, the movement moved beyond the middle class into universality.

This change in advertising technique helped to move the Women's Movement forward into the new century. The use of photography advanced the motif of the independent woman, and in doing so promoted social change in the United States. While the popularity of the bicycle peaked in 1899 and soon fell into the background with the mass production of the automobile, the 'Bloomer Girl' continued onward. The Women's Movement leaders created in the 1890s remained active and continued to use photography to promote the cause and empower others to join. The photographs taken of independent women bicyclists in the 1890s became photographs of suffragettes in the early twentieth century.

Bibliography available here.

Creative Commons Attribution

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial-No Derivatives 4.0 International License.

Matt Reicher

Matt is a Historical Research Consultant with Histreco Research Services. He has a BA in history from Metropolitan State University and a MA in museum studies from Oklahoma University.

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