Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Strong nerves, strong legs, strong language": Women on Bicycles, 1890

Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Susan reporting:

In the 1890s, more and more women began to ride bicycles, both for exercise, convenience, and independence. As can be imagined, this horrified a good many people, who saw women on wheels as a dangerous threat to families, morals, health, and, of course, the fair, delicate flower of womanhood.

We expect to see women cyclists defended by Susan B. Anthony (who famously wrote that bicycling "has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.") But the English novelist John Galsworthy (1867-1933)? The Nobel Prize-winning author of The Forsyte Saga evidently had his own strong feelings about women on bicycles – at least if we are to believe this passage from his novel, On Forsyte 'Change, taking place in 1890:

"Such historians as record the tides of social manners and morals, have neglected the bicycle. Yet would it be difficult to deny that this 'invention of the devil'...has been responsible for more movement in manners and morals than anything since Charles the Second. At its bone-shaking inception innocent, because...[it was] only dangerous to the lives and limbs of the male sex, it began to be a dissolvent of the most powerful type when accessible to the fair in its present form. Under its influence, wholly or in part, have wilted chaperons, long and narrow skirts, tight corsets, hair that would come down, black stockings, thick ankles, large hats, prudery and fear of the dark; under its influence, wholly or in part, have bloomed week-ends, strong nerves, strong legs, strong language, knickers, knowledge of make and shape, knowledge of woods and pastures, equality of sex, good digestion and professional occupation – in four words, the emancipation of woman."

Of course, this passage exists to fly in the florid face of Swithin 'Four-in-hand' Forsyte, an aged bachelor who promptly writes his very modern niece out of his will after he sees her astride a bicycle. While young Euphemia may have looked as entirely proper as the young lady, above, it's more likely the scandalized Swithin saw her more like the contemporary out-of-control women (with monocles!) in the satirical cartoon, right.

Above: Julia Blaess Klager, Michigan Bicyclist (detail), 1890s, photograph from Studio of Susan T. Cook, Ann Arbor, MI. See here for more information.
Below: Velocipeding, drawing from the cover of The Ferret, A Weekly Literary, Satirical, & Theatrical Journal of the Age, March 1870, London.


Susan Bailey said...

We take bicycles for granted now but your post made me realize how utterly amazing and freeing bicycles must have been for women! The breeze blowing through one's hair as you rode down the street . . . that must have been exhilarating! It made me think of those early days when I first learned how to drive. :-)

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Seems unbelievable now that riding a bicycle could be such an issue! If it weren't so sad, it would be funny.

Donna Hatch, historical Author said...

I'm sure part of the scandal came from the position as well as the fact that a lady's legs were sure to show.
* gasp*
Great post!

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