By the turn of the 20th Century, cycling was both practically and symbolically linked to the movement for women’s rights and gender equality. For many women, cycling had opened the door on a whole new world of independence; allowing them to escape the house without the watchful eye of a chaperone for the first time. Bicycles meant women could travel to villages and towns that had previously been out of reach and gave many middle class women their first chance to develop physical fitness. Such was the impact, that women’s rights campaigner Susan Anthony asserted the bicycle ‘has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world’.
The major breakthrough for women was the coming of the even wheeled ‘Safety’ bicycle in the mid 1880s. The ‘Safety’ had a chain drive, two standard sized wheels and a diamond frame; a design that is still used by most bikes to this day. This facilitated an upright riding position and the rider could put their feet easily on the ground when stationary.
‘Safety’ Bicycle, 1884.
Crucially, unlike the high-wheeled ‘Ordinaries’, the riders’ feet were now well away from the front wheel. This meant that - even when wearing restrictive Victorian dresses - women could now cycle in relative safety. In 1894, cycling magazine The Bearings, summarised the situation stating ‘the safety bicycle fills a much-needed want for women in any station of life.’
A woman in traditional Victorian dress wheels her bicycle on Kingston Hill. Circa 1900
Victorian dress reflected the spirit of the age: prudery and restraint. Women were expected to wear heavy dresses, voluminous skirts and tight corsets. Even after the coming of the even wheeled ‘Safety’ bicycle, this attire was hardly ideal for cycling. Aside from the risk of getting skirts tangled in the chain, the heavy clothes caused a real danger of overheating and exhaustion. A change was clearly needed. Lady Harberton was an influential figure in the campaign for adopting ‘rational dress’. She railed against the absurdity of stacking layer upon layer of heavy garments only to bind them back in to a natural shape with a painful corset. As we shall see below, there was fierce resistance to the adoption of more practical clothing, which was condemned as unfeminine. However, slowly but surely, women’s newfound love of cycling did away with the corset and led to bloomers becoming socially acceptable.
Many Victorian men were disparaging towards the idea of women cycling at all. In particular, there was widespread concern that the act of straddling the saddle might cause sexual arousal. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to produce a bicycle with both pedals on the same side in order to allow women to ride side-saddle and avoid any unwanted excitement.
The all male Victorian cycle clubs were particularly opposed to female cyclists, especially those who dared to swap the traditional Victorian ankle length skirt for knee length knickerbockers. The Pioneer Gazette raged ‘What can be more distressing than a woman…dressed partly as a man…scorching along a dusty road, her red face streaming with perspiration, her hair dishevelled leaning over the handle bars in a most ungraceful and undignified attitude.’
Despite this resistance, women persevered. The even wheeled ‘Safety’ bicycles offered a degree of independence that, prior to the 1880s, simply wasn’t available to them. By the turn of the Century, practical clothes like pantaloons had become socially acceptable; unthinkable just twenty years before. Women could now travel to places that would have previously been too far and crucially, they could undertake these journeys independently without having to gain permission of a male chaperone or seek out a coach driver. The author Bella Bathurst summarised the change: ‘by offering women a chance to see themselves as free, to take possession of their own physical health and to claim their independence in the workplace, the bicycle had done something extraordinary. It had changed the world and made it a better place.’
In the first two decades of the 20th Century, Suffragists on both sides of the Atlantic championed the bicycle as both a symbol of female independence and a tool for achieving liberation. Suffragists rode around cities across England on bicycles adorned with banners sporting the famous slogan ‘Votes for Women’. In 1912, suffragettes blocked Winston Churchill's motorcade with bicycles. The movement even had its own special bicycle. In 1909, an advertisement for it, in the colours of the suffrage movement appeared in the pages of the magazine Votes For Women.
The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was a militant suffrage organisation founded in Manchester by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903. The organisation built up a network of local branches all over Britain, including in East Molesey, Esher, Kingston and Richmond. The Kingston branch was set up in 1908 and located at 53 Eden Street. One prominent suffrage campaigner based in the area was Princess Sophia Duleep Singh of Faraday House, Hampton Court. The Princess was the daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh as well as being Queen Victoria’s god-daughter. She campaigned for votes for women nationally as well as locally in Richmond and Kingston-upon-Thames. The Princess recognised the transformative potential of the bicycle and was often pictured cycling. She helped set up local branches of the WSPU and established the Women’s Tax Resistance League, whose slogan was ‘No vote, no tax’. In 1913, newspapers across the country reported that she had been fined for her refusal to pay taxes.
The Kingston Branch of the WSPU in 1914
Princess Sophia Duleep Singh