‘Womanly’ Cycling- Part One

It was only during the 1890s that it became commonly accepted that cycling was a pastime which women could participate in as well as men.  This period, and in particular the mid-1890s saw a rapid growth in the presence of female cyclists, both from middle and working-class backgrounds. Whilst the beginning of the 1890s saw attitudes towards women who cycled slowly begin to shift, it was the ‘cycling craze’ of 1895, in which members of the aristocracy and ‘society’ took to cycling in great number, which appears to have done the most towards changing attitudes towards female cyclists. One female cyclist, charting the progress of women’s cycling in Dublin, explained how,

‘By 1890, one could ride a bicycle around Dublin without being actually mobbed, by 1891, curses and strong epithets were only heard occasionally in the streets, although Society still totally ignored the existence of the pastime, and society with a small ‘s’ thought it very fast and vulgar. 1892 and 1893 saw an increase, although not a very big one, in the number of ladies safeties; in 1894 Society began to cast sheep’s eyes at the pastime which it had so long stigmatised as ‘impossible’, and a few grandes dames mounted the wheel in strict privacy. In 1895 came the cycling boom, ‘Society’ at last took the plunge on the verge of which it had so long been hesitating, and bicycling all at once became, ‘the thing’. (Quoted from Cycling and Gender in Victorian Ireland, Brian Griffin).

However, whilst cycling was no longer seen as an activity too ‘fast and vulgar’ for women to enjoy, notions of femininity and ‘what was proper’ for women placed heavy restrictions on those women who took to cycling. Although this period saw a slight widening in qualities and behaviours that could be seen as ‘womanly’, middle-class notions of femininity still remained heavily focussed on women appearing graceful, refined and unflustered. There was, therefore, a great pressure on female cyclists to conform to these qualities when awheel. As one female writer put it,

‘It has been said, and said rightly, that the woman who allows herself to be seen hot and red with exertion, and panting from want of breath, loses much of her feminine dignity’.

To cycle in a ‘womanly’ fashion then was to appear calm, unflustered, elegant and poised. As the write above went on to comment,

‘The ideal rider more resembles a hawk on the wing than anything else, the perfect poise and effortless movement, graduating almost at the will of the rider, with no violent external effort shown.’

Perfect poise mastered, now time to practice effortless movement. Source: http://www.oldbike.eu/museum/1900s/fashion-costumes/women-bicycles-photos-adverts-postcards/

Advice on how women could achieve, ‘perfect poise and effortless movement’, appeared in a number of women’s publications during in this period. These advice pieces gave particular focus to hill climbing, for the obvious risk that women might show, ‘violent external effort’ whilst travelling up steep ascents. One female writer in Hearth and Home explained how,

‘The best way to take a long hill is to go slowly, not to rush up to full speed until it is impossible to go on any further, but to ease up at the bottom and deliberately begin the ascent sitting quite upright with a slight pull of the handles now and then, but no crouching or straining.’

To achieve this upright position with no ‘crouching or straining’ it was advised that,

‘The ankle muscles must do the work; they must keep both pedals working one with the other. The toes must do their part in forcing one set of pedal bars forward whilst the other hooks them backwards.’

It was not only woman who gave advice on ‘feminine’ cycling. A male member of the Hull St. Andrews C.C. told the club’s female members to,

‘Cultivate a good style of riding, sit upright and don’t stick your elbows out, nothing looks so objectionable as the latter.’

Cultivating a ‘good style of riding’. Source: http://www.rogerco.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/anew/collect2.htm

The risk of appearing ‘unwomanly’ was not the only reason why women were advised to cycle in a slow and steady manner. Doctor’s frequently advised against woman over-exerting themselves whilst cycling, drawing on medical thinking which stated that women possessed weaker constitutions to men. As such those women who, ‘over-did’ it were thought to be seriously endangering their health. One doctor from the period advised female cyclists that,

‘It is never worth-while to go beyond your strength, either by attempting long distances or with the wish to show your power of endurance.’

The doctor went onto to warn female cyclists that they should, ‘avoid pounding up hills. If breath begins to fail dismount at once.’

Even sitting in an upright position was seen as a necessary precaution against ill health. Another doctor commented that,

‘One of the most important points in riding is position. The upright position is the only one that will not entail injury to internal organs. If this is maintained it will benefit all of these, removing the congestion from which so many distressing symptoms arise.’

However, perhaps the most archaic piece of feminine cycling medical advice came from Fanny Erskine, publisher of books on cycling for women during the 1890s. She advised her readers that if a female cyclist found herself panting then,

‘Something is radically wrong, and a doctor should be consulted.’

Advice which will hopefully forever remain in the 1890s.

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6 thoughts on “‘Womanly’ Cycling- Part One

  1. Thank goodness, we’ve come a long way from those sorts of attitudes! The presence of women athletes in many competitive sports proves that, and women now commonly do things like rock climbing and mountaineering as well. Yet I will say that certain negative attitudes still persist, strangely enough. As an example, I’ll say that when I’m working out at my neighborhood gym I like to push myself, and generally work up a good sweat. I have gotten comments—more from other women than men, oddly enough—along the lines of, “My goodness, you’ve been working hard!” (said with a hint of distaste). One theory I have about that is that, unfortunately, oftentimes women more than men do have the habit of showing up at the gym and going through the motions on the equipment without trying that hard. So a woman working out vigorously shows them up, in a sense. Another theory is simply that our society still has a double standard such that women always have to be more concerned about their appearance than men. Nevertheless, as you’ve pointed out, we’ve definitely made a lot of progress!

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    • We have thankfully, but as you have said, still a long way to go! I think we are still to an extent influenced by the gender norms from this period, and the idea that looks and appearance are more important for women than men (although there have certainly been huge changes since the 1890s.) I’ll hopefully put another blog up in the next couple of days about women’s racing cyclists and ‘rational dress’ as a way of exploring this further. Thank you for your comment and sorry for the late reply- has been a very busy few days!

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  2. Thought you might enjoy this by John Galsworthy

    “Four-in-hand Forsyte”

    “In olden times the woman rode
    As fitted one of subject mind:
    Her lord and master sat before,
    She on a pillion sat behind.

    But now upon her flying wheel
    She holds her independent way,
    And when she rides a race with a man,
    ‘Tis even chance she wins the day.”

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    • Thank you for sending it over, a lovely piece of prose, would make a wonderful start to a chapter in a book on the topic! I recently came across a poem which appeared in the Manchester Co-Operative Society Monthly herald (so not quite of the same literary quality) which I thought of when reading it, doesn’t celebrate women’s emancipation quite as much,

      ‘Rock-a-bye baby, for father is near,
      Mother is biking, she never is here!
      Out in the park she’s scorching all day,
      Or at some meeting is talking away!
      She’s the king pin at the women’s rights show,
      Teaching poor husbands the way they should go!
      Close then your eyes; there’s dishes to do,
      Rock-a-bye baby, tis pa sings to you.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Cycling Sources #9, Should Women Cycle? | The Victorian cyclist

  4. Pingback: Cycling Schools- Part One | The Victorian Cyclist

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