Of Fish, Women, and Bicycles

When my teenage daughter broke up with her boyfriend recently, her Awesome Grandma sent her a t-shirt with this slogan:


It’s an old maxim, one that I can remember seeing on t-shirts back when I was in high school. I hadn’t seen or heard it for a long time. I’m glad it’s still current, and even more glad that it has become part of my daughter’s phraseology. It also got me thinking about women and bicycles, and how the Story of gender roles reached a turning point courtesy of a two-wheeled vehicle.

In a previous post, I considered innovations and inventions that had spelt the end of culture itself, ranging from slam poetry (according to Harold Bloom) all the way back to writing itself (according to Plato). I just now remembered that bicycles also played their role in the destruction of civilization.

In 1896, Charlotte Odlum Smith claimed that the bicycle

brings on the most appalling diseases among young women; it swells the ranks of reckless girls and outcast women; it will prevent motherhood; and it’s the devil’s advance agent, morally and physically, in thousands of instances.

Now Charlotte Smith was not by any means an antifeminist. To the contrary, she fought for safe conditions for female laborers, sought recognition for women inventors, and was a pioneering proponent of equal pay for equal work. But even she was alarmed by the freedom that the bicycle unleashed upon womankind.

After its origin in 1817 as a wooden vehicle powered by feet on the ground, the bicycle suffered from many decades of irredeemable clunkiness. But the 1880s introduced the diamond frame, the rear-wheel chain, and pneumatic tires. The “safety bicycle” of the 1990s was recognizably the two-wheeled vehicle that we ride today.

Women were attracted to the hugely popular new mode of transportation. But radical fashion change was needed before women could ride bicycles. Although bustles were mercifully approaching extinction, those were still the days of corsets, voluminous skirts, and ponderous undergarments. If a woman’s home was a domestic prison, her clothes amounted to a ball and chain.

The bicycle changed all that. To partake of the freedom of bicycle travel, women donned unheard-of new garments—lightweight, loose, comfortable, and liberating. Instead of dresses, women began to wear bloomers—or “rationals,” as they were fittingly called.

Suddenly, women were unshackled and set loose to explore a hitherto inaccessible world. The protest, of course, was enormous. If even a feminist like Charlotte Odlum Smith was alarmed by the bicycle, one can well imagine the horror of gender norm advocates, especially husbands. Medical experts fretted about the consequences of so much outdoor exercise to the “delicate” female frame, and moralists stewed over the mischief that women, so notoriously unreliable in powers of judgment, might get themselves into if unchaperoned.

But the backlash didn’t stand a chance. Memoirist Flora Thompson recalled how “men’s shocked criticism petered out before the fait accompli, and they contented themselves with such mild thrusts”:

Mother’s out upon her bike, enjoying of the fun,
Sister and her beau have gone to take a little run.
The housemaid and the cook are both a-riding on their wheels;
And Daddy’s in the kitchen a-cooking of the meals.

And another anonymous verse captured the changing cultural story with images of wheels:

The maiden with her wheel of old
Sat by the fire to spin,
While lightly through her careful hold
The flax slid out and in.
Today her distaff, rock and reel
Far out of sight are hurled
And now the maiden with her wheel
Goes spinning round the world.

Charlotte Oldum Smith notwithstanding, most feminists rejoiced. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton put it in 1895,

The bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect and self-reliance and make the next generation more vigorous of mind and of body; for feeble mothers do not produce great statesmen, scientists, and scholars.

And the following year, Susan B. Anthony declared that bicycling

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, untrammeled womanhood.

So while fish have scant need for bicycles, never let it be said that women haven’t found them vitally useful, perhaps especially for the commonsense fashion innovations they provoked. A Punch cartoon of 1895 portrays two women, Gertrude and Jessie. Gertrude’s full dress reaches the ground, and she appears to be paralyzed from the waist up by a corset. Jessie looks much more at ease in “rational dress,” including bloomers. The women speak the following lines:

GERTRUDE: “My dear Jessie, what on earth is that bicycle suit for!”

JESSIE: “Why, to wear, of course.”

GERTRUDE: “But you haven’t a bicycle!”

JESSIE: “No, but I’ve got a sewing machine!”


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