What did Susan B. Anthony say had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world?” What was called the “devil’s advance agent” by the Women’s Rescue League president Charlotte Smith? What caused women to cast off their corsets and wear bloomers in public?
Would you believe they were talking about the bicycle?
When Albert Pope started manufacturing the first American bicycles in 1877, few could have imagined the effects the bicycle would have on women. Early bicycles, with large front wheels and small rear wheels, were dangerous and difficult to ride. The iron or wooden wheels were unforgiving and ill suited to nineteenth century roads. Then, in 1887, a new style of bicycle was introduced to the American public. Called a “safety,” the new bicycle had rubber tires and two wheels of equal size. Suddenly, bicycles became a practical form of transportation.
A bicycling boom followed, and women were eager to take part.
Shasta County was no exception to this boom. Bicycles served as both a form of transportation and a new opportunity for recreation. In the late 1800’s, bicycles shared the streets with stagecoaches and horses. Sharing the streets with multiple forms of transportation was common at the turn of the century.
Local author, A.G.J. Paine wrote that as a young man in the 1880’s, he rode by train from San Francisco to Sisson (now Mount Shasta) and from there rode his bicycle the remaining 65 miles to his grandmother’s house in Fall River.
A popular bicycle shop in Shasta County was owned by the Wright brothers, James and Albert. Like other shops, bikes were sold alongside automobiles and intended to be used on the same roads.
The Wrights were known for riding their bicycles from Palo Cedro to Redding for work. They also encouraged women to participate in bicycling.
Bicycling posed unique challenges for women. Although the general health benefits of bicycling were recognized, many worried about the effects of bicycle riding on the health – and morals – of women. Many people in the nineteenth century believed that exercise would harm women’s reproductive organs. Many people, like Charlotte Smith, worried about women and men riding bicycles together without the watchful eyes of chaperones.
The standards of women’s dress further hampered bicycling efforts. Typical 19th century women were encumbered by corsets, ankle-length skirts, layers of petticoats, bustles, and crinolines. Their clothing could weigh up to 25 pounds – making cycling cumbersome, if not impossible. Early bicycle manufacturers experimented with sidesaddle riding options, placing both pedals on the same side of the wheel. These efforts were soon deemed impractical, and women started looking for alternatives.
Back in the 1850’s, groups of women had advocated for shorter skirts, with baggy ankle-length pants underneath. This style became known as the Bloomer Costume, or bloomers, after Amelia Bloomer advocated it in her newspaper. However, the backlash against women wearing any sort of pants was so great that women had mostly abandoned the effort by the time bicycles became popular. Women bicyclists, however, found bloomers perfect for cycling. Divided skirts and shorter hems soon followed. Still covered from neck to ankle, but freed from corsets and long skirts, women embraced bicycling in large numbers.
Soon, women realized the liberating power of bicycles. Bicycles allowed women to travel farther from home. The feeling of physical exertion and the ability to travel under their own power were new experiences for many women. Suffragist Frances Willard wrote, upon learning to ride at age 53, “I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world.”
In 1896, suffragist and women’s rights leader Susan B. Anthony wrote that the bicycle, “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” Women started to test their physical limits on the bicycle.
In 1894-95, Annie Kopchovsky became the first woman to circumvent the globe by bicycle, ship, and train. Kopchovsky used the last name Londonderry during her ride, after one of her sponsors. Kopchovsky became as famous for her stories of robberies, accidents, and narrow escapes – most of which were probably fabricated – as for her athletic feats. Kopchovsky’s escapades prompted the San Francisco Chronicle to report, “She has a degree of self-assurance somewhat unusual to her sex.”
The bicycle was not the only transportation option to debut in the 1890’s. The first automobiles were also appearing on the scene. Mass-production started to make the automobile possible for ordinary Americans in the early 1900’s.
The bicycle soon became a tool for recreation, not transportation. The Federal Road Act of 1916 and the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921 poured millions of dollars into building better roads – for automobiles.
The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 created the interstate highway system, almost all of which is closed to bicycles. Few cities planned for anything other than automobiles on their streets. Bike lanes, and even sidewalks, became an afterthought in most American urban planning.
Today, women bicycle for many of the same reasons as their 19th century counterparts. Fun and fitness are still the top reasons women give for bicycling.
Bicycling can be a healthy and fun way to complete errands, get to work, or just get outside. Yet in an era when heart disease is the top killer of women, and more than a third of American women are obese, women are only responsible for 29 percent of bicycle trips in the United States. Most women cite safety concerns as the biggest reason they don’t ride more.
Locally and nationally, for both men and women, the absence of bicycle lanes is the top deterrent to bicycling.
Women are key to creating a bicycling culture. Women represent close to 50 percent of all bicycle trips in countries with the highest bicycling rates. In the Netherlands, women account for 55 percent of all bicycle trips. Women, who are more likely than men to regard bicycling as a family activity, influence the bicycling habits of their kids. When women don’t bicycle, or don’t see bicycling as safe, their kids are less likely to bicycle.
Locally, Shasta Living Streets is advocating for safer bicycling and walking options in Shasta County. During Family Bicycling Day, an annual Shasta Living Streets event held in April, many participants expressed concerns about the local bicycling infrastructure.
One mother wrote, “I want my kids to be able to bicycle to school – it’s one mile from our home – but cars drive too fast.”
Those concerns have far-reaching effects. In Shasta County, 34 percent of students are obese. National statistics show only 13 percent of students walk or bicycle to and from school. In fact, 43 percent ride in cars to school, even though they commute less than one mile.
Women are also deterred by the misconception that they can’t carry much on a bicycle. Heather Phillips disagrees. Three years ago, Phillips hardly bicycled at all. Then, she started working with a client who had a Dutch-style cargo bike (called a bakfiets). She decided to get one of her own. Now, she bikes or walks at least three days per week to school with her 4-year-old son, commutes to work, goes grocery shopping, and even goes to the hardware store on her bicycle.
“It’s always amazing just how much STUFF I can haul with sheer girl-power,” says Phillips.
Bicycling with young children is another concern for women. Today, families have many options for bringing kids along. Trailers, bicycle seats, trailer bikes, and tandems are all options. So is the bakfiet. Phillips’ son always hated car rides as a toddler, but he loves the bike.
“There is so much to see and talk about during our commute,” she says. “The bike makes the journey as enjoyable as the destination.”
Phillips, understandably, gets a lot of attention on her bakfiets. That attention is the single, most effective tool to get more people riding. When people see others out riding, doing errands, and being with their families, they believe that they can do it, too.
Few people are aware of the variety of bicycles, tricycles, recumbents, and handcycles that are available. American bicycle shops tend to focus on fitness and recreational bikes, which can be impractical for daily use. Recognizing that gap, Phillips now rents her bakfiets on spinlister.com.
Cities like Portland, Oregon and Davis, California are proof that Americans will bicycle more when they feel safe. When communities create more bike lanes, more people bicycle. When drivers are used to seeing bicycles, they tend to adjust their driving habits to accommodate them.
Locally, the Dana Drive extension of the River Trail and the Cypress Avenue bridge improvements get high marks in Shasta Living Streets. Projects can be expensive, but the benefits of being a bicycle-friendly county are far reaching. Children who are healthier tend to do better academically. Fewer cars mean less pollution. The costs of bicycle ownership and maintenance are minimal compared to cars. The challenge is to get community members and leaders to see the benefits, and be willing to pay for them up front.
Shasta Living Streets is a local organization working to do just that. The organization’s goal is to allow all members of the community, regardless of age, to lead an active lifestyle and bicycle and walk every day for transportation, health, and joy. Shasta Living Streets believes that our natural outdoor recreational attractions, coupled with a focus on active transportation, can make the region a top destination for families, businesses, and tourists.
Phillips believes it is possible. “Imagine,” she says, “if children grew up knowing that all trips under one mile were going to be by bike. Imagine the change in our community’s health and happiness!”
– By Susan Bissell. Originally published in A News Cafe, February 18, 2014.
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