It is funny how two separate elements can become strongly linked with time. Indeed, when Karl Drais invented the 'running machine' in 1816, little did he know that this new tool would become a vehicle for women's emancipation…
Gender roles were tightly defined in the 19th century; many social constraints governed women's behaviour and men dominated the public sphere, including transport for which women had to fully rely on men. Physical mobility was therefore a breakthrough for women's autonomy: they found themselves able to move freely and alone on this new and fast vessel. This not only meant no more reliance on men but also no more chaperone: married women could no longer be closely monitored by their husbands and single women could move to farther places along with men, facilitating courtship as a consequence. By traveling all alone, unwatched and anywhere wanted; the new and sweet taste of freedom was unparalleled.
Furthermore, if you take free fashion for granted today, yesteryear was a very different matter. Because of this new practice of bicycle riding, The Rational Dress Society was born in London in 1881, amplifying social tension. In contrast to the long and heavy dresses that women wore at the time, the Society advocated shorter and more comfortable clothing to allow easier cycling, such as 'bloomers': short baggy trousers. This alone was a revolutionary step in women's physical appearance in society, and thus in their power of action. Other organisations were created as well such as the Lady Cyclists' Association in 1892, which was the world's very first cycling organisation for women, promoting rides, tours and social gatherings for female cyclists.
The social order was slowly crumbling, much to the resentment of men. Bicycles emblematized female autonomy and self-rule, when only men enjoyed these thus far. While domains of activities were strictly separated between the two genders at the time; in the cycling world, women rode as much as men and met them as their equal in the race towards gender equality. As American civil right activist and writer Susan Brownell Anthony wrote in 1896: the bicycle 'had done more to emancipate women then anything else in the world'.
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