13 December 2012

Susan B. Anthony On Cycling

"Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance."

Those words were uttered by none other than Susan B. Anthony.  What she said was not at all hyperbolic:  bicycling almost single-handedly brought women's clothing from the 19th to the 20th Centuries.  

In this illustration from an 1895 issue of Punch magazine, the young woman on the left is wearing the then-new "bicycle suit."  The woman on the right, in contrast, is wearing the ankle-length skirt and bodice that were more typical of women's attire until that time.  

I wonder whether the woman in the "bicycle suit" is wearing some sort of girdle or other torture device to cinch her waist. Looking at the woman on the right, and knowing about the fashions of the time, I would guess that she had a corset underneath her outfit.  By the end of the decade, that undergarment would become as outmoded as seamed stockings would later become.  As women were released from the bondage of whalebone, their skirts got shorter and, sometimes, morped into the then-shocking "bloomers", which resembled, more than anything, old-style Turkish trousers.

Even Susan B. Anthony herself probably didn't realize how true her comment was.  Even during the "dark ages" of cycling in the US, women wore clothing that allowed much greater freedom of movement than what their grandmothers donned.  So, by the time the "bike boom" of the 1970's came along, it was that much easier for us to ride--and to work 18-hour days.

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