Cycling Sources #9, Should Women Cycle?

As has been touched upon many times, the subject of women on bicycles was one which caused continued controversy and debate during the 1890s. Their riding styles, the clothes they wore, and indeed whether they should cycle at all, filled up column inches in both the cycling, and the national press.

To resolve this final question once and for all, in 1896 the women’s periodical, Hearth and Home, decided to write to a wide range of prominent individuals, asking for their opinions on the question ‘should women cycle?’

1890s cycling

Drawings of female cyclists (and selfie posers?) from the 1890s. Source: http://www.oldbike.eu/museum/bikes-1800s/1896-1899-diamond-frames/1896-butts-ordway-standish-ladys-bicycle/

These ‘prominent individuals’ were listed as including, ‘leading members of the Church, the Medical Profession, the Services, and the House of Commons’. Other than perhaps doctors, at first glance it is somewhat unclear as to how much insight Archbishops, Military Officers and M.P.s could provide into this question.

However, by seeking the opinions of these individuals, what Hearth and Home was really asking was something along the lines of, ‘is cycling a socially acceptable pastime for women to participate in?’ By having the Archbishop of wherever answer in the affirmative, Hearth and Home’s female readership could take to their wheels safe in the knowledge that cycling was a respectable, suitable activity for them to engage in.

Whilst it can be celebrated that most of these answers were of a positive nature, the fact that they were all coming from men, and the emphasis they gave to women cycling in a ‘fashionable’, ‘moderate’ and ‘graceful’ manner, highlights how both the position of women in society, and understandings of appropriately ‘feminine’ behaviours more generally, were very much removed from our own during this period. As the not-so discretely titled ‘Major-General Harcourt Bengough’ put it, ‘by all means ride, but if you cycle, cycle well.’

Finally, if anyone knows of any current school of medical thought which states that, ‘the physical perfection and nervous dexterity of our limbs react favourably on our intellect and moral character’ then I’d love to find out more!

The beginning of the article, and a selection of the responses, are listed below.

Thinking that our readers would like to know the views of people of authority on the all-important question, ‘Should women cycle?’, we sent letters to leading members of the Church, the Medical Profession, the Services, and the House of Commons, asking their opinions. The number of replies we received was very gratifying, while on the whole the verdict was decidedly in favour of the popular pastime.

Mr George Wyndham, M.P., is distinctly an advocate of cycling, when done in moderation, and we commend the sound common sense of his views,

‘You ask my opinion on ‘cycling for women’. I think it is a healthy exercise, and, when mastered, a graceful accomplishment. It is certainly exhilarating, and useful for developing self-reliance and dexterity. If, as some schools of medicine hold, the physical perfection and nervous dexterity of our limbs react favourably on our intellect and moral character, then cycling must have a high educational value.’

George Wyndham

Colonel A.C. Welby, M.P., evidently believes in cycling as a healthy pastime, but is in favour of moderate dress,

‘I am afraid, as a bachelor, I cannot claim views which are likely to be of any interest to others. It seems to me that in country districts, and where women have a long way to their work, cycling is an exercise, or a means of locomotion, both cheap and invigorating. Whether the riding is physically advantageous I must leave to doctors to decide.

When ladies in London parade up and down to look smart and attractive, I often think that if mirrors were arranged alongside, so that they could see the very ungraceful and inelegant position which, especially in wind, cycle-riding entails, they would go straightaway home, and never ride a cycle again for show.’

The Bishop of Bath and Wells is very decidedly in favour of the pursuit with certain restrictions, and,

‘Thinks cycling good for the health, good for the temper, and a good kind of amusement for men, women and children; but its practice by women should not be with a view to racing, nor in unfeminine dress, and never with disregard to the rules of the road.’

George Kennion, Archbishop of Bath and Wells in 1896

Among the opponents of rational dress for cycling is the Dean of Salisbury, who writes:-

‘My views on the subject of ‘cycling for women’ are hardly worth your notice. I cannot say I entirely disapprove of what may be a necessity almost for some who cannot drive or walk, but I think caution as to the effect on health is highly desirable. That ‘cycling’ should be common in large towns I think would be, as indeed has been seen, hardly possible from the fear of accidents. But wherever and whenever practiced I deprecate the possibility of the adaptation of any dress not entirely feminine. It seems to me that we are in danger of a fashion for male attire on the part of ladies, which may injure the true position of women in the world.’

‘Injuring the true position of women in the world’. Source: http://www.fashion-era.com/rational_dress.htm

Major-General Harcourt Bengough, C.B., gives very sound advice,

‘In the early days of cycling I confess I sided with the large majority of men and women who refused to believe that cycling would ever become a popular recreation with English ladies. In its early days it had many difficulties- prejudices if you will- to be overcome. There were difficulties as to becomingness of costume, fears as to the possibility of a graceful deportment on wheels, doubts as to the propriety of riding about unattended, and there were questions as to the effect of cycling on the health.

The pioneers of the movement, too, were not generally those recognised by society as empowered to introduce new fads. A bulging skirt, a crouching and too solid figure, a florid headdress surmounting a spectacled and somewhat over-earnest countenance, these were not traits to attract a huge number of votaries.

‘A spectacled and somewhat over-earnest countenance’. Source: http://wehuntedthemammoth.com/2012/01/04/bicycle-riding-ladies-and-other-threats-to-manly-order/

But all this has happily changed- youth, beauty and fashion have taken cycling by the hand, science and skill have been called in as allies, and the result is a fascinating and health-giving pastime. It is surely a pretty sight, that of a young girl confident in her skill, confident in her costume, floating along with a movement which partakes something of flying, something of skating, erect in her seat as a dragoon, supple as a willow branch. To those who hesitate to follow the fashion, I would say, ‘by all means ride’, but I would add this caution, ‘if you cycle, cycle well’.

Another distinguished military officer considers-

‘That cycling is a very desirable accomplishment for women, so long as not carried to extreme limits. Women often appear to advantage on bicycles, and can sit up gracefully on the saddle; while men on the other hand, most frequently appear at a disadvantage, on account of their stooping too much.

By bicycling, women who have for years been restricted to a neighbourhood of a radius from two to three miles can now extend this area to a radius of eight to ten miles, and have an opportunity of seeing the country when living in town. Bicycling has thus placed poor women on an equal footing with rich ones in a most important particular- getting fresh air and exercise and seeing new scenery. Bicycling will add to a new interest to life, and bring God’s lovely earth to the doors of thousands of women in poor circumstances who would otherwise see nothing but streets and squalor each day.’

To end up with, we give the opinions of that charming writer, Eden Phillpotts, containing as they do sterling common-sense with a sly dash of humour,

‘I approve most heartily of bicycling for anything with a liver, and to deny that the sex shares with us the responsibility and anxieties of that weird organ would be false modesty. Let our maidens ride by all means, and our wives and mothers and grandmothers if they care to risk it. Any women corporeally fitted for the pastime has a right to appear on a bicycle. Those who ought not to ride and do, truly make a judicious spectator sad; but even in the most grotesque cases I blame the relations of the performer rather than the lady herself.

Bicycling has a tendency to keep women out of the shops, which is another subtle advantage. Again, a bicycle is at once far cheaper and healthier than a sealskin jacket. Let man once grasp this great fact, and any remaining paltry prejudices will vanish into limbo.’

Eden Phillpotts, a man who could combine ‘sterling common-sense with a sly dash of humour’. Source: http://www.ebooks-library.com/author.cfm/AuthorID/775

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Cycling Sources #8 ‘Women on Wheels’

Why exactly did women take to cycling in the 1890s? Was it just for the pleasures and liberation which accompanied riding a bicycle, or were there other factors which pushed them to take up the pastime? In 1899 a Berlin writer with the most fantastically German name, in Herr Paul Von Schnonthan, looked to explore this question by going round Berlin asking women why they had taken to cycling. The following article, which appeared in an Irish newspaper, offered a commentary on his findings.

Von Schnonthan’s research suggested that pleasure and emancipation were not the main reasons why women took to cycling. Those he interviewed gave a wide range of reason why they cycled- from the demands of fashion to a desire to please their prospective husbands, but few mentioned the enjoyment which cycling brought them.

As such, the writer of the article was somewhat cynical about Von Schnonthan’s findings, querying the fact that, ‘almost all the women interviewed allege that necessity, not pleasure, has set them on wheels.’

Instead, they offered a much simpler why cycling was so popular amongst women. They extolled the ‘new life’ it had given them, which was, ‘wider, freer, and more delightful than was dreamt of before its coming.’

In an article of fantastic images (the ‘match-making mamma’ tortuously accompanying her daughters on their cycling excursions being particularly enjoyable) my favourite is probably the one of ‘a younger and unmarried lady’ carrying a pair of tongs and a spirit lamp on her excursions so to curl her fringe (more on the oft neglected history of fringe fashioning can be found here).

“A married lady alleges she was reluctantly compelled to cycle by the increasing expansion of her waist. ‘My sister-in-law’, she writes, ‘lost six pounds through bicycling, so I thought I would try my luck too. That is the only reason, for I derive no pleasure from it, and am afraid of my bones every time I mount my bike. In the spring I ride twenty kilometres every day. I am a little thinner than I was, but nothing to what I should like to be.’

Fashion is the power which has converted a younger and unmarried lady into a reluctant cyclist. She wails as follows over the sacrifices it entails: – ‘One is obliged to do so whether one likes it or not. As you ask for the truth, I will tell you that I do not think it nice for girls to ride on a bicycle. One perspires so horribly, and after half an hour’s ride one gets into a dreadful state. I always take a little powder-box and a pair of tongs and a spirit lamp to curl my fringe, but it is very difficult to use them when there are gentleman present, for that makes such a fuss, and they might laugh at one. I am always getting bruises too, and hurting myself. I hope the fashion will soon die out.’

One young lady, however, recently engaged, is an honest enthusiast. She has learnt to cycle at the request of her prospective bridegroom, and is determined to ride tandem with him after her marriage. She does not mention which is to take the front seat.

A young woman’s righter is a cyclist because she thinks the greatest movement runs fastest and smoothest on wheels. She contrasts her own condition before and after the emancipation of the bicycle. There are two very different girls that she describes:- ‘The one that walks along the Ringstrasse by mama’s side, clad in a long gown, terribly hampering to the legs, that can scarcely dare to look to the right or the left, and must certainly not look behind; the other, in a smart and coquettish attire, decent and sportsmanlike – a cap and a man’s scarf, and a divided skirt- rides along the street. One feels then, as free as a bird in the air, and a little like a man! And really, the best of all is to be a man! Of course, a good many ride who ought not to do so. They have not the necessary figure. One must be nineteen and have a good figure if one wants to ride a bicycle.

Cycling in ‘smart and coquettish’ attire. Source: http://www.victoriana.com/Fashion/cycling-clothing.html

An appeal is made to our sympathy on behalf of the match-making mamma, whom duty, not pleasure, has planted solidly on the bicycle saddle. ‘Just because I am married and have grown-up daughters, I am obliged to take up cycling. All their girl friends bike, and it is now a part of a girl’s education to do so. I resisted as long as I could, because my husband does not approve of it, and four bicycles make a big hole in one’s annual income; but is was of no use, when we saw that two of my husband’s nieces, who are not anything like so pretty as my three girls, had got engaged whilst bicycling. It was my duty as a mother, though an unpleasant one. Young men nowadays are quite made about bicycling. Formerly they used to come to one’s house; now their bicycling excursions always prevent them from doing so, and one is always hearing that Miss so-and-so is going with them. So I had to let my girls learn to ride too; and as I cannot let them go alone, I have had to learn as well in my old days, though it is torture to me. Do you think I would be such a fool as to ride at my age if I was not positively obliged to do so?’

The good lady can dismount as she pleases. The chief merit of the bicycle in the eyes of the young is that it dispenses of the chaperon. The bicycle is in truth the women’s emancipator. It imparts an open aired freedom and freshness to a life heretofore cribbed, cabined and confined by convention. The cyclists have collided with the unamiable Mrs Grundy, and driven triumphantly over her prostrate body. Delightful excursions, fresh air, and lovely scenery are the boons which the cycle has offered to the girl, and of which the girl has testified her enthusiastic appreciation.

Engaging in ‘Delightful Exursions’. Source: https://www.pinterest.com/aminatyg/cycle-chic/

Yet it cannot be said that cycling makes women ‘fast’ except as pace is measured by the cyclometer. We are not surprised that in matrimonial advertisements in Germany it has come to be regarded as an essential condition. To men the bicycle has been as unquestionable boon. But after all, men had their fair share of fresh air and country pleasures before the advent of the wheel. To women, it has brought a new life, wider, freer, and more delightful than was dreamt of before its coming.”

An example of a marriage advertisement from the 19th Century. Many more equally amusing examples can he found at http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2014/03/10/vegetarian_personal_ads_19th_c_matrimonial_advertisements.html