The Bicycle: Symbol of UC Davis & Women's Rights

May is National Bike Month! As UCD students know, there are a lot of reasons to celebrate the bicycle. It’s convenient for getting around campus and it's a fun, cheap way to stay fit. But the bicycle is also a pivotal symbol of the struggle for women’s rights.

Feminism is a diverse movement that means different things different people. Over the years, virtually everything has been praised for symbolizing women’s empowerment: The Spice Girls, Fifty Shades of Gray, you name it. In fact, if I wanted to, I could link the significance of UCD’s cows to the Egyptian goddess Hathor. What makes the bicycle so special? For starters, the relationship between bicycles and feminism has its own Wiki page.

When bicycles first hit the U.S. and Europe in the 1890's, horses and trains were the main modes of transportation. Automobiles hadn’t arrived, and it was still socially unacceptable for women to go out and about without a male chaperone.

The bike changed all of that. Bicycles proved extremely popular with women, providing them with newfound mobility and independence. They liberated women from constrictive corsets, petticoats, and bustles in favor of looser shirts and bifurcated “bloomers." Bicycles became closely associated with the “New Woman” of the turn of the century. With her strenuous exercising, freedom from male supervision, and scandalous "unladylike" fashions, the female cyclist completely defied stereotypes of female delicacy and propriety.

Women’s rights activists, from dress reformers to suffragists, embraced the bicycle! Susan B. Anthony opined that the bicycle “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” Fellow suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote, “the bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect, self-reliance…” and that “many a woman is riding to suffrage on a bicycle!”

Proponents of the patriarchy pulled out all the stops to combat this terrifying scourge of lady folk being outdoors and wearing comfortable clothes. Cartoons, songs, and poems satirized women cyclists as mannish, short-haired, smoking cigars, or even—gasp!—wearing pants. A columnist for the Sunday Herald declared, “the most vicious thing I ever saw in all my life is a woman on a bicycle.” Rev. T.B. Hawthorne hilariously accused bike riding of promoting masturbation. Male doctors got really creative, claiming the bicycle would cause ladies all sorts of maladies, from damage to the reproductive organs and menstrual cycles to a made-up condition called “bicycle face." Apparently, “over-exertion, the upright position of the wheel, and the unconscious effort to maintain one’s balance” would produce “dark shadows under the eyes, an expression of weariness, a hard, clenching jaw, and bulging eyes."

The bicycle revolution lived on! The gruesome horrors of “bicycle face” be damned. An 1895 article in The Courier wrote about how the bicycle had replaced “old-fashioned, slow-going notions of the gentler sex” with “some new woman mounted on her steed of steel.” Munsey’s Magazine declared the bicycle “a steed upon which [women] rode into a new world.”

The next time you’re cruising from Wellman to the Science Lecture Hall in your tank top, shorts, and hair blowing in the wind, remember your ride isn’t just a quick trip between classes or an easy workout. That bike is a harbinger of sweet, sweet freedom and female emancipation.

Want to read more about feminism and bicycles? Here are our sources: