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On your bike, Britain! Cycling liberated women in the 1890s, and is just the thing to free us from lockdown

Two wheels better: a tandem ride beside a lake, 1896 (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Two wheels better: a tandem ride beside a lake, 1896 (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)


June 25, 2020   5 mins

The coronavirus lockdown has certainly been beneficial for one thing: the bicycle. British cycling was already at an all-time high when the pandemic hit in March. By May, there was a boom in demand for bikes. By June, a tenfold increase in bike use was expected as we move out of lockdown. In Ireland, the government requested that anyone who could travel by bike, should do so, not just for their own health but to relieve pressure on other forms of transport. You can, it was noted, always “socially distance” by bike.

The bicycle is not only a clean, healthy, enjoyable, and efficient mode of transport: it has also played a key role in the emancipation of women. One of the founders of the American feminist movement, Susan B. Anthony, said in 1896 that the bicycle “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel — the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood.”

The bicycle, as we now know the basic design, came into availability in the 1880s — the earlier bikes, like the penny-farthing, were uncomfortable and impractical. Up to the 1890s, according to Ray Strachey in her renowned history of the women’s movement, The Cause, it was not generally accepted for respectable woman to move about freely. It was the advent of the bicycle that liberated these late-Victorian girls, and virtually ushered in H.G. Wells’ “New Woman” for the turn of the century, (and the Suffrage campaign which subsequently arose.)

But “the women who first began to ride upon this queer machine were thought to be incredibly adventurous, and most people also thought them shocking,” wrote Strachey. Only men’s bikes were available at the beginning, she recalled, and the early female pioneers were hooted at in the street, since they were often wearing “Bloomers”. These were the loose-fitting knee-length garments, like oversize knickers, invented by Amelia Bloomer, as an alternative to the crinoline and the bustle.

But whatever they wore, these bright young women thought the bicycle a stupendously good thing. Not only did they discover “the exquisite pleasure of rapid motion”, but the possession of a bicycle meant “they were no longer prisoners in their own houses”. They could “spin off” wherever they liked, assert their independence, gratified by the knowledge that they only “relied upon their own muscle”.

Still, bicycles were quite expensive at first, and such intrepid women bikers were usually from more affluent backgrounds. You don’t see archive photos or illustrations of women from mines or mill-towns riding bicycles until much later. My Edwardian uncle, born in 1908, recounted how the bike became cheaper after the end of the First World War: by 1920, you could buy a bike for just over a quid — he paid a guinea (£1 and a shilling) for his, in the mid-1920s, although admittedly that still represented a week’s wages for some working men.

The bike also started to play a role in changing courtship habits. Before bicycles were avaialable, matches and marriages were often made within the radius of a community, or however far a couple could walk. This restricted the gene pool, and shared kinship was frequently quite high in village schools The bicycle enabled a healthy young man to cycle 50 or 60 miles to meet a more distant sweetheart (although girls rode bicycles, males were still expecting to do the courting.)

By mid-20th century, the motor-car had reduced the status of the bicycle. It had been much-used, of course, during the Second World War, but subsequently relegated, somewhat, to the proletarian of the transportation world. In movies, poor Italians rode bicycles, while young Americans had fabulous cars with tail fins, à la James Dean.

But the bike has always had its fans, and it has always been invoked when petrol scarcity occurred. And that’s just what happened during the French students’ rebellion in May 1968. Due to nationwide strikes, there was a severe shortage of petrol all over the country, and public transport, as well as much car travel, ground to a halt. I was a reporter on the London Evening Standard at the time, and the Editor, Charles Wintour (father of the now more famous Dame Anna) took it into his head to despatch me to Paris, from London, on a bicycle. So off I went.

I look back now on the extreme informality with which all this was arranged. Health and safety wasn’t mentioned. There were, of course, no mobile phones — I had to find public phone boxes en route to transmit my reports. I didn’t possess anything as fancy as a cycle helmet. Neither did I actually own a bike: I just hired one from a Clerkenwell bike shop. Some French money was provided by the Beaverbrook accounts department, I bought myself a couple of maps and I set off for the Dover Road.

I crossed to Calais, and rode towards Paris, via Montreuil, Amiens and Beauvais. It was a glorious May and the countryside was exhilarating. There were adventures: I encountered a couple who had sheltered a British airman during the Second World War, struck up a helpful conversation with a woman in Beauvais and was pursued through a dark copse by a Frenchman in a fast car, probably with a little light rape in mind — how did he get the petrol to drive? — but I somehow gave him the slip. Paris was in full revolutionary mode when I arrived, in the traditional manner of the French exuberantly taking to the streets. My most vivid memory was that the students were burning down the stock exchange — La Bourse — declaring the end of capitalism. I was 24 and thought it all terrifically exciting.

Then I joined Wintour and some other Brits at the Crillon Hotel for drinks and dear Robin Day made a gentlemanly pass. Then I was ordered to ride all the way back again. Which I did.

That bike was a modest little number, but it behaved robustly, across cobblestones and rough roads, sometimes traversing motorways briefly. I don’t remember any punctures, or problems with the chain.

Looking back, however, I’m alarmed at how under-equipped I was, and how casually I embarked on the assignment. (I’m even more alarmed to remember that I sometimes halted for lunch at some cosy bistrot and drank a good half-bottle of wine with the repast, without thinking twice about the consequences.)

I’m glad that a younger generation today has much better facilities for cycling — cycle lanes and paths, adapted clothing and shoes, Google maps, and a more serious approach to the whole endeavour. It’s upsetting to read of the deaths of cyclists, who can be vulnerable in heavy traffic — people should be able to cycle in safety. Every city should try to look more like Amsterdam and Copenhagen for cyclists, and post-Covid, I believe many more will do so. The cleaner air of the traffic-free (or traffic-lessened) roads has also been a source of great bicycling encouragement.

And I can see the bike going from strength to strenth: a boom in electric bikes, which are getting cheaper all the time, and are terrific for older people. There’s something else I notice that seems rather enticing for the, ahem, senior citizen (“soixante-huitards” — 1968ers, as the French call our generation) and that is the adult tricycle. They look amazingly jolly, and that road to Dover, and maybe even Calais, seems really quite inviting on a trike.

During the period of lockdown, the feeling of being “imprisoned in one’s own home” — like those frustrated Victorian ladies — has sometimes been a little overwhelming. The bicycle is just the thing to set the people free.


Mary Kenny is an Irish author, broadcaster, playwright and journalist.

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Tom Hawk
Tom Hawk
3 years ago

I would love to ride my bike. But the roads are just too dangerous when you are sharng the tarmac with cars and buses. And there are no decent vehicle traffic separation schemes that offer safety and usability.

It is pointless trying to ride on a UK so called cycle route. They always cease wherever the road narrows… at the very place where a cyclist most needs to be separated from motor vehicles. UK cycle paths are marked to require the user to give way to all and every other form of traffic from pedestrian trians to traffic joining the main route. Then look at a map of cycle routes. Few of them start where people live and take them to the place people need to go to such as the industrial estates or train station.

This is not down to some law of nature. It is the product of shoddy standards adopted by UK highway authorities who treat the cycle as a childs toy instead of a serious form of transport. The Dutch and Belgians seem to be able to design and build effective cycling facilities. Why can’t our public sector do likewise?

Samuel Gee
Samuel Gee
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Hawk

Cycling isn’t dangerous. Statistically speaking it’s about the same risk as walking. But for many, it feels dangerous. So I agree. If you want more people engaged in utility cycling (rather than cycle sport) then we do need to have segregated and joined up infrastructure. Decent cycle paths are relatively cheap compared to the engineering necessary for actual roads. And if you look around you can see quite a lot of unused and sometimes unusable paths that could be made to work and joined up. And new roads and road improvements could have cycle provision added at very minimal cost. Recently a 7 mile stretch of the A338 between Ringwood and Bournemouth was widened and resurfaced. To have added a segregated 4ft strip of tarmac down the side. The plant, labour and materials were all there to do that. It would have been bobbins compared to the cost of the road and much of the cost of assembling plant labour and materials already absorbed. Such a wasted opportunity when e-bikes make a 10m ew commute very easy.

annescarlett
annescarlett
3 years ago

Cycling is brilliant in the right conditions and for someone who is younger and fit, however, in the far North of the UK, with the hills, mountains, pot holes, heavy rain, sleet and snow, it is a nightmare and not a pleasure at all. When you get to your 50s and 60s this terrain is impossible to navigate safely. The other negative on cycling is from when I worked in an office, where there are no shower facilities, a couple used to cycle in each day, they were generally wet through with sweat/rain and stunk to high heaven all day. There are upsides and downsides to everything.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  annescarlett

I can see very few upsides to cyciing in Britain. It is surely a form of suicide.

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Sorry to butt in again, Fraser, but I’m so enjoying your highly dramatic comments and strangely fanatical onslaught against this article and bicycles in general. Were you traumatised by a bicycle when young?

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Dan Poynton

That paragon of virtue, Switzerland, recently (2010) rescinded the requirement to have a bicycle license, as not cost effective. (This Swiss are just too law abiding).
However we should introduce it here, not only to ensure that cyclist get mandatory third party insurance, but that feral behaviour is also curbed. No charge should levied,
but a recognition plate would be compulsory.
Whist such a scheme would be of little value in say, Stow-on-the Wold, but it would bring great benefits to the cities. Cycling on the pavement, crashing red lights could be greatly reduced along with the collateral anger normally generated by such behaviour.
Such activity as wearing head phones, or talking on mobile phones should also be prohibited, as they unarguably impair a cyclists awareness of what is or is not going on around them.
Finally, thanks to the sainted NHS (Heaven be praised) actual fatality rates in London for example are falling. However the wheelchair ratio is rising. Think about it, is really worth swapping your bicycle for forty years in a wheelchair? Just so you can cycle down the wrong side of the Balls Pond Road in the dark, with no lights, listening to Beethoven’s ninth?

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Ah, you want to take all the fun out of bicycle riding, Mark! However, although we’re a wild bunch down here in New Zealand and I’m pretty partial to a bit of Beethoven while biking through the city streets, I don’t think any of us would be mad enough to talk on a phone while riding. Perhaps the race of my forefathers is wilder than I thought….

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Dan Poynton

Talk, text, it’s almost axiomatic for any decent London cyclist. A sort of manic Death Wish has invaded the capital, aided and abetted by the urban Fuhrer, the Mayor.
With the greatest financial disaster since the fall of Rome, just around the corner it can only get better.

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

I’ve heard there’s more than a little Sharia moralism informing your Fuehrer’s policies too – quite a potent totalitarian mix.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Dan Poynton

Yes indeed. That is the understatement of the year! Another legacy from the loathsome Blair I’m afraid.

Gerry Fruin
Gerry Fruin
3 years ago
Reply to  annescarlett

Not impossible with an electric bike, hence their popularity. You missed the 70’s and 80’s. Take care, be seen, don’t challenge the car, stay away from lorries. Enjoy

Martin Atherton
Martin Atherton
3 years ago

Thank you for an uplifting article in difficult times. I have rediscovered just how much fun cycling is on the quieter roads. I have certainly seen many more people out on their bikes and I even think drivers have become a lot more understanding of cyclists now that more of us are out and about on foot and on bikes.
It would be great if we could carry on and make cycling and walking the preferred mode of transport for short journeys.
In reply to Anne’s comment things really are not bad up north or for people over 50 . I am a 61 year old northerner. It is not always raining or snowing and the roads are not all bad. Anyway as they say “there is no such thing as bad weather just the wrong clothesðƾ˜.”
I agree employers need to do more but if we cycled more like the Dutch ie for transport rather than sport we would not arrive at our destination so sweaty.
Happy cycling.

annescarlett
annescarlett
3 years ago

Thanks for your comments Martin, but I live in the highest part of Rossendale, the rain hits us almost daily from straight over the Pennines, the hills are steep and we have pot holes everywhere, in fact recently a very young woman was killed over the Grane when her car turned over when she hit a pot hole. Most of us travel into the city of Manchester or surrounding areas for work, a 30ish mile journey, or almost 50 mile if you do not use the most dangerous by pass in Lancashire. I also agree that showers and changes facilities must be installed in places of work, happy cycling

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

A lazy article of the type we have read hundreds of times, and any man who wrote of ‘light rape’ would be cancelled immediately. The prospect of older people taking to Britain’s roads of electric bikes is simply terrifying. Even in the Netherlands, with bicycle lanes everywhere, these bikes are killing quite a few older people each year because they are so fast relative to pedal bikes. The carnage in Britain would be off the scale.

Samuel Gee
Samuel Gee
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

No. Pedelecs are limited to a max 15.5mph. At that point no more power is added. And the cyclist needs to pedal all the time anyway. There is no “just motor” option. All the small electric motor does is slightly enhance your own effort. I’m 59 and cycle 18 miles to work and back on regular bike at an average 14mph. Or if you like about the speed of Mo Farah in the 10k. Now Mo is a quick runner, I am an average old guy commuter but either way you cut it 14 – 16 mph is not exactly deadly fast speed.

Gerry Fruin
Gerry Fruin
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Sorry Fraser just for once I have to disagree – about bike speed and oldies. Electric bikes can only be powered to 15 mph in Europe by law. Bike’s do not kill! Oldies might keel over on them but they can do that off a bar stool. Hills are where for older riders they score, just adjust the power. The only time they just might equal a not so fit rider on an ‘unpowered’ machine is on a hill. Downhill they are equal. Go give it a whirl. I do agree with you, a very sloppy article.

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Carnage? You make riding bikes sound like being in the trenches. I’m sure any “carnage” suffered by bicycle riders would be more than compensated for in saving lives from ill-health (both physical and mental) and more cars on the road. It looks like you’ve been well and truly schooled by the Wokes in their quest for the totally “safe” world. Not happening….

Martin Shepherd
Martin Shepherd
3 years ago

It would be nice to read an article just once without a social justice angle. Is that really too much to ask for?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Yes. It is too much to ask for.

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
3 years ago

The SJW frenzy is ghastly, but does that mean we shouldn’t discuss and celebrate truly wonderful social justice events like the obviously phenomenal boost to women’s freedom provided by bicycles? Besides, the history described here was so fascinating (including the author’s ride to Paris in ’68), that it alone was pure gold. I don’t think we should be fanatically anti-social justice just because the SJWs can’t get it out of their minds.

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
3 years ago
Reply to  Dan Poynton

It is just so tedious a frame -and so predictable and simplistic.

Why not just say some women were excited by the idea of riding a bicycle and so that’s what they did, without fatuously shoehorning it into some virtuous SJW ideologue.

I bet some women simply looked at the bicycle and thought; ‘this looks fun, I’ll give it a go’ without it even occurring to them that this was a ‘brave’ ‘revolutionary’ ‘act’ against the oppressive patriarchy -or even caring very much about it.

SJWs always try and re write the past in order to shade everything with their politics. It makes them feel important and relevant and helps their indefatigable efforts to manipulate and control the present and the future. Their take on history inevitably (and in an entirely self serving way) insists activists were always at the centre of things, making change happen. I think that’s baloney. I question how much activism has actually ever usefully achieved. My hunch is that normal people are just out there all the time slowly and constructively getting good things done in small but important ways -bringing about lasting development and change. Activists are the tiny minority of people trying to take the credit for it all, and seldom knowing how to actually make any useful or good lasting change.

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
3 years ago

Your comment intrigues me because, although I am intensely allergic to the present Woke SJW craze (in particular the rewriting of the past thru their narrow privileged lens), I thought this revelation about the humble bicycle’s role in the women’s emancipation movement was totally uplifting, and not at all gratuitously SJWish. As a longtime bicycle maniac myself, I felt quite ignorant that I didn’t know that wonderful and important bit of history. I hate to say it Justin, but it seems to me that you are committing the same mistake the SJWs are: you are looking at the past situation of Victorian women through your own liberated lens. “This looks like fun, I’ll give it a go” just wasn’t an option for women at that time. And that you are able to view them through your liberated lens was in part made possible by brave people and activists like these wonderful bikie girls and their daring tasting of the “exquisite pleasure of rapid motion”! Wonderful stuff.

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
3 years ago
Reply to  Dan Poynton

Women did not ride bicycles at first because doing so revealed their undergarments. Nothing to do with ‘respectable women not being allowed to move about freely” as the writer infers. These were the mores of the era, and, just as now, I imagine the majority of women then did not wish to expose their underwear in public. Both men and women of that time wore ridiculous, unnecessarily constraining clothes (imho). It seems Victorian women actually took quite a few years of thinking to work out how their underclothes would need to change in order for them to get on a bicycle.

Victorian women of the time graduated instead to the Tricycle. And it seems this was not at all frowned upon by wider society:

By 1888 the magazine Good Housekeeping reported, “The
exercise of riding a tricycle is one highly to be recommended for
women, especially young women who have nothing to do but imagine that they have got all the ills under the sun. A primary effect of riding is to strengthen the muscles, not only of the lower extremities, but those of the abdomen, chest and the arms, which are constantly being excited to contract… English women are as famous for propelling these three-wheeled vehicles as they are famous as pedestrians. One lady writes that she never enjoyed such good health as during “this, my first cycling year.” She rode 100 miles the first month; 210 the next; then 300 miles a until in the last two months of the season she rode 500 miles each, making 2,166 miles in eight months, a part of the time being lost by foreign travel. A 16-year-old girl writes that she has ridden four miles to school on her tricycle; and a 10-year-old girl rode 150 miles in a little over four months…” (Source: Good Housekeeping, July 7, 1888.)

This is ‘Good Housekeeping’ magazine -hardly a reactionary gazette -and endorsing cycling (tricycling) for all women as early as 1888. So clearly the idea of ‘this looks like fun I’ll give it a go’ was an option for women in 1888 -even if it was for tricycles and not bicycles -because modesty prevented bicycle riding at that time.

I suppose what I wonder from reading your response (which I don’t begrudge at all btw -it made me think and go and research something interesting -and I am further sure there’s still a massive amount about the subject I don’t know and also have wrong) but for me it’s about how you were quickly made to feel ‘ignorant’ by the original article, before accepting the SJW narrative provided. That, I think, is the guilt trip that SJWs always try to put on you; as if to say how could you not know about this oppression? -you should be ashamed! And I think that alone stops people from finding out more.

(You may also have a very serious bicycle bias and wish to promote ‘bike supremacy’ -but this could be your SJW Achilles’ heel!)

I do agree with you however that the dangers of throwing the baby out with the bathwater are an inherent risk in adopting any line of argument and it’s worth watching out for it.

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
3 years ago

Mea culpa, an extreme bicycle bias (one of my very few virtues). (However my relations and friends who I often fall out with over such matters would die laughing at your labelling of me as a SJW). Just your first two sentences alone illustrate my point well, and that you can’t see the intimate relationship between those two factors shows you have not understood the issue here. Generally, you don’t seem to have the imagination or empathy to view the plight of Victorian women through their own lens rather than our own liberated 21st century one. These wonderful women who had the saucy nerve to “spin off” are way more heroic than me, and most probably you. Let’s salute their courage and its contribution to our amazing freedoms (that the SJWs are now busy destroying).

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
3 years ago

Btw I forgot to mention the most striking example of your inability to comprehend life as a woman in the Victorian era: “These were the mores of the era, and, just as now, I imagine the majority of women then did not wish to expose their underwear in public.” I’m sorry, but this is patently ridiculous, especially when you consider just a few years ago the striking trend of young and teenage women to display their belly buttons and underwear with the droopy pants approach. Do you think that was even remotely possible in the Victorian era, even in the most liberated woman’s wildest fantasies?

David Maltby
David Maltby
3 years ago

The comments so far are ‘spot-on’ on the dangers of cycling! But, in the media generally it is politically incorrect to make such points!

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
3 years ago
Reply to  David Maltby

What are you talking about? Are you saying the author is being PC by not mentioning the “dangers” of bicycles? The multiple benefits of bike riding for people, the roads and environment far outweigh the “dangers”. And if we want to get finnicky, the author’s celebration of her slightly treacherous ride to Paris was totally not in keeping with the present PC fanaticism for safety, as she also hinted at. I have no idea why so many people are making the most precious and alarmist statements about bicycles on this thread. Have we been taken over by a fanatical anti-bicycle sect?

beleaveinbetter
beleaveinbetter
3 years ago

I spotted the traffic police out in force a couple of days ago, setting up a speed trap. One of them said “doing it because drivers appear to have forgotten how to drive after 3 months lock-down, and more cyclists are being killed”….I replied that I doubted the first bit, but here’s 3 points for you to consider;-
1; Any Muppet can get on a bike and use the highway without a test, tax, insurance, lights or brains.
2; Drivers are so terrified of getting points from you lot that they spend more time looking at the speedo instead of keeping aware of their surroundings and hazards. .. incl cyclists, who often have no road sense whatsoever.
3; The speed limits in built up areas are inconsistent that drivers have to concentrate on whether they are allowed at 20, 30 or 40mph. Cyclists can go at whatever speed they like.
His reply?…..” we’re just here to enforce the law”. so. just another sheep in Policeman clothing.
I say Test, Tax & insure . Save Lives.

ralph bell
ralph bell
3 years ago

Cycling allows a feeling of freedom and has a no worse safety record than any other form of movement including pedestrian, whilst massively improving health. Separate lanes give a feeling of safety but painted lanes are best in my experience, especially for pedestrians, who regularly cross without hearing or seeing, so allow the cyclist some space to take evasive action. Most drivers are well mannered.

mathew jackson
mathew jackson
3 years ago

There is the better escape option; the dirty side! Off road aka ‘mountain’ biking liberates
our consciousness with so many loose stones to speed over, so many blindingly fast descents, so many lung burning climbs, so many midges, worser, horseflies, so many
nettles and thorns, so many doggie does deposits or worst, bags dangling at face level
in a sylvian location. But, no cars, no noise except birdsong and the decrepit wheezing of one’s own lungs, and alas, no club membership fees. We owe it to our last vestige of
rights of freedom of expression and protection of our rights of access to go for a blast at 5mph or 25mph. Stay loose, have fun. Most if not all road cyclists have yet to evolve to
this state of karma but roads are not where it is at. Join us on the dark dusty dirty side, and be kind to walkers being pulled by their canine chums. And the reaction of fellow motorists when you emerge onto tarmac covered in a melange of herbivorous excrement and mud to ride aside their Sunday showered chariot must be worth the effort. Join us and join in the joyous spread of all that flies up to confound their steeliest grimace.