Suffrage & Cycling

Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. It has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman 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.

H.G. Wells , New York World, 2nd February, 1896


For most of the 1990s, I lived and worked in Asia , with an apartment at Boudhanath Stupa, Kathamandu, Nepal. I frequented a rooftop restaurant with a good view of the locality. A Nepali waiter sidled up to me one day and confided:

‘We have seen your girlfriend yesterday, and she was roaming.’

Because of the culture gap, it was too complicated to try to explain women’s suffrage. Relationship dynamics regarding my young Australian feminist girlfriend would have been even harder. As H.G. Wells might have put it, she was nothing if not ‘free, untrammeled womanhood.’ For goodness sake, we each rode motorcycles up local mountains. (Up was no problem, down could be tricky). I simply replied that western women were allowed to roam.

But it made me think more about east-west differences in cultural attitudes toward women. I read an article regarding the plight of Nepali women, and its title stuck in my mind ever since:

‘Why is the girl-child always given a broom, never a pen?’

Such attitudes may now seem unfamiliar to us in the west. For example, some people may think they belong only in Muslim or Hindu tradition. But not that long ago, they were normal in the west too. Women had no rights. They were not allowed to roam.

Then along came the bicycle…

‘When women first began to ride the bicycle many (old fogey) physicians said it would be very injurious,’ explained Ida Trafford Bell in July 1894. ‘The undue exercise was dilated upon and the peculiar liability to straining or to getting falls or bruises, and, in fact, every possible objection which old-fashioned ideas and obsolete theories could suggest was brought up. Probably not one of the objectors could ride a bicycle to save his life or had ever felt the exhilarating joy of a truly fresh breath of air taken into the lungs like a stream of electrical vitality.

…But the day of old fogies is happily passed. Women defied the dear old fellows with their last century notions, and with commendable pluck learned to ride, and ride well, swiftly, gracefully, athletically. The women of today now mount their wheels and go forth for a rapid spin in the open air, knowing that in this way they can best win strength and courage to meet their many household worries. Dame Fashion also has smiled approval, and has decreed that women of the highest standing in the world of society may go forth mistresses of the art of bicycling, free and untrammeled by conventional dress and musty tradition.’

Today we take the bicycle for granted. It’s seldom seen as a tool of liberation. Yet the humble bicycle was the first machine to enable independent travel. With mass production, it went on to empower both women and the working classes. The golden age of magazines rode alongside that of the bicycle, and women started writing about their cycling experiences. This website celebrates those early years, before cars took over the roads. Through the 1890s, as the bicycle evolved into a machine that everyone could ride, we share the first tastes of cycling freedom…