Bicycles and women: Engineering social reform

I have a new respect for bicycles.

This one in particular. I wasn’t alive in the 1880s, but this bicycle directly affected my life nonetheless. 

First modern bicycle
First modern bicycle on display at the Coventry Transport Museum

John Kemp Starley developed the Rover safety bicycle to replace the precarious large-wheeled Penny Farthings. The safer bicycle allowed more people across more classes to get around, and some of those people were women.  

Plaque reads: Engineering Heritage Award. The low-riding position and chain-driven rear wheel allowed this bicycle to be enjoyed by all. It also played a role in the liberation of women.

Can you imagine biking with a long skirt and petticoats tangling in and around the chain?

Around the same time that J. K. Starley was engineering a safer bicycle (and lessening the impact of fossil fuel emissions hundreds of years later), the Rational Dress Society formed in London, England to protest clothing that deformed the figure, impeded movement or injured a woman’s health.

Many people (men and women) didn’t like the idea of women traipsing about in pants.

How would they tell the genders apart, by gum?

But women of the time wanted or needed to get around, and the safety bicycle made it possible. If only they didn’t have to take their life into their hands every time they peddled along with long skirts dangling around a bike chain. The Rational Dress Society was right: wearing a long skirt while riding a bike was not only irrational, it was downright dangerous.

The demand was too great and the logic too sound. Society changed, and rather quickly for the time. Bicycles allowed women freedom of movement, both in terms of clothing and transportation, and that opened up other areas for them.

Without bicycles, changes to wardrobe might have been a longer time coming.

I doubt that J.K. Starley had women’s rights or environmental protection on his mind back in the 1880s, but those are the unintended consequences of his work.

I have a new respect for bicycles.

Four-year-old girl riding a small bicycle with training wheels.
Thanks to J.K. Starley, my daughter could smile with carefree joy (in pants) while learning to ride a bike that had the same features as his first safety bicycle. (Photo 1998)

About Arlene Somerton Smith

Writer, laughing thinker, miner of inspirational insights, sports fan, and community volunteer

Posted on November 20, 2018, in Arlene Smith, Arlene Somerton Smith, Inspiration, sports, taking care of our planet and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Another A+ post: bicycles and social change.

    I didn’t realize until now I must have worn a skirt riding my bike. I wasn’t allowed to wear slacks in my Mennonite home. Thank God there was no high-up bar near the seat, like in boy’s bikes, 🙂

    • Now, that is interesting. I was in shorts and what we called “play clothes” (which meant old clothes that we didn’t care if we got dirty) when I ran around on the farm. I don’t know how I would have reacted to wearing a skirt!

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