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How bicycles boosted the women's rights movement

Susan B. Anthony once said, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

The invention of the “safety bicycle” in 1885 was a groundbreaking moment in the fight for women’s rights. It was safer and more practical to ride than its large-wheeled predecessor the penny-farthing. That led to new opportunities for women. As author Sue Macy told me, “it gave them independence because you didn’t have to depend on a man to take you somewhere or you weren’t consigned to the home, which a lot of younger women were.”

Not only did the bicycle enable women to travel more freely, but its popularity in the late 19th century influenced women’s clothing and helped usher in a “rational dress movement.” The uncomfortable, restrictive Victorian dresses that were in fashion at the time made it difficult for women to do things like bike. With the new bicycle craze and so many women taking to the new “noiseless steeds,” there was a resurgence of “bloomers,” baggy undergarments that were comfortable and easy to be active in. Bloomers eventually became a symbol of the feminist reform movement and were worn by many prominent activists of the day.

All that led suffragists like Susan B. Anthony to say, “She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life.”

Watch the video to see how the bicycle helped women’s fight for equality. And make sure to pick up Macy’s book Wheels of Change to read more about the bicycle’s role in the women’s rights movement.