More About Bicycles and the Suffragette Movement

Aug 28, 2017

bicycles and suffragettes

In our previous post, we discussed the role of bicycles in the early women’s rights movement as they provided greater freedom. But transportation was not the only contribution that bicycles made to early women’s movements. The rising popularity of bike riding among women also led to dress reform, moving fashion away from highly restrictive styles.

Through most of the nineteenth century, women were expected to wear floor-length skirts, tight corsets, and up to seven pounds of layered petticoats. When cycling grew in popularity, it became clear to many women that their usual dress was not suited to the bicycle. The long skirts made riding difficult and potentially dangerous. In 1896, a woman was killed after she lost control of her bike and could not regain her footing on the pedals due to her long skirt.

The rational dress movement, which had close ties to the women’s suffrage movement, offered an alternative for women cyclists: looser corsets (or no corsets), shorter skirts (or no skirts), and bloomers. Bloomers were loose fitting pants that allowed women to move with ease, and they saw a boom in popularity as women realized the impracticality of cycling in skirts. Typical riding gear in this style included bloomers beneath a short skirt or bloomers with no skirt at all. Bicycling was a major force in advancing the rational dress movement and bloomers were so influential that they became symbols for the “new woman,” a woman who sometimes worked outside the home and/or became involved in women’s political movements, and even saw herself as equal to men.

bicycle cartoon

The “new woman” who cycled and wore bloomers was not a universally accepted figure. In 1897, a group of male Cambridge students protested the admission of women by building an effigy of a bloomer-clad woman on a bicycle and suspending her from the air. Plus, many women reported being harassed on the street when they wore bloomers to cycle. Kitty J. Buckman wrote in 1897 of riding in London:

It’s awful – one wants nerves of iron. I don’t wonder now in the least so many women having given up the [Rational Dress] Costume and returned to skirts. The shouts and yells of the children deafen one, the women shriek with laughter or groan and hiss and all sorts of remarks are shouted at one, occasionally some not fit for publication. One needs to be very brave to stand all that. It makes one feel mad and one’s ideas of humanity at large sink to a very low standard.

Thankfully, the popular derision of women in bloomers subsided as riding wear became more popular, allowing nineteenth century women to be more comfortable and more physically active.

Are You in Need of a South Carolina Bicycle Accident Lawyer?

Even if you wear practical clothes for cycling, bicycle accidents happen. If you or a loved one is the victim of a South Carolina bicycle accident, the personal injury attorneys at the Law Offices of F. Craig Wilkerson can aggressively pursue fair compensation. To schedule your free case evaluation, contact us online or call us at: