Reading 1896 newspaper articles on the subject of women riding bicycles, the impression is that dissenting voices were few and far between. One of the most outspoken critics was the Woman’s Rescue League. In Raising More Hell and Fewer Dahlias: The Public Life of Charlotte Smith, 1840-1917 (2009), Autumn Stanley writes:
The League was soon embroiled in a crusade against bicycling for women that seems bizarre today, and was often ridiculed even then. Contrary to what “Gossip of the Cyclers” tried to suggest in the New York Times (Jul.5, 1896:12), Charlotte was not alone in her belief that the design of the bicycle seat led to sexual excitement in women, and thus to temptation and actual immorality. Some medical and religious authorities of the day took the same position.
The referenced article in The New York Times has this paragraph:
The efforts of Miss Charlotte Smith, President of the Woman’s Rescue League, to condemn the bicycle as a means of recreation for women, on moral grounds, have met with a somewhat frosty reception. Her opponents say the bicycle is a blessing to women, inasmuch as it gives them beneficial exercise in the open air, and carries them, without giving undue fatigue, to places of interest which might not otherwise be visited. No other person has raised a cry against the bicycle on similar grounds, and it should be taken for granted, therefore, that Miss Smith has been misinformed.
Circulars from the League declare:
A great curse has been inflicted upon the people of this country because of the present bicycle craze, and if a halt is not called soon 75 per cent. of the cyclists will be an army of invalids within the next ten years.
Bicycling by young women has helped more than any other medium to swell the ranks of reckless girls, who finally drift into the army of outcast women in the United States.
‘Bicycle run for Christ,’ by so-called Christians, should be properly termed ‘Bicycle run for Satan,’ for the bicycle is the devil’s advance agent, morally and physically, in thousands of instances.
An article in The Literary Digest (Vol. XIII, No. 12, p. 361) includes three responses to this.
The Lilly Library has a Scrapbook of Bicycle Accidents from 1896, which includes some interesting articles also. In one titled Bicycling Bad For Girls there is:
Mrs. Smith was asked what had become of her crusade against woman bicyclers. She said:
“I do not object to old women riding, or to an entire family going out together on bicycles. What I am fighting against is girls who are just reaching womanhood riding out alone. It undoubtedly leads to immorality and has been the ruin of many girls.
“Mind, I don’t say that the attitude is immodest or the dress improper. I know, however, that in bicycling there is grave danger to the morals in young girls. Many fallen women have told me that their downfall dated from their first bicycle ride.”
Next to this in the scrapbook is a possibly connected article:
An evil-minded woman has come here from Washington to make war on bicycle riding by women, on the ground that it is immodest and of an immoral tendency. The trouble is with her own imagination solely. Instead of fighting the wholesome practice and custom of feminine bicycling, let her rather fight against the devil who is perverting her own thoughts.
Below that, an unrelated note about corsets:
It is reported that at a meeting of prominent specialists held at the New York Academy of Medicine every speaker who spoke of cycling for women commended the exercise, but warned women against riding in corsets or tight clothing. When women are unwilling to abandon their corsets in riding, some one of the various comfortable health waists, or very short, loose, and very flexible corsets may be worn with less injury than those that are long and tight.
Over the page is a longer and deadly sarcastic article about the Woman’s Rescue League:
Is Cycling Immoral?
Mrs. Charlotte Smith, President of the Woman’s Rescue League of Washington, D.C., is in town, and she promises to make herself heard publicly in Brooklyn next week. Her purpose is to point out to the women and girls who ride bicycles that wheeling “has a tendency to lure young girls into paths that lead directly to sin.”
During the last three or four months thousands of fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles and aunts, and their children, grandchildren, nephews, and nieces have taken to wheeling, and have employed their minds and their muscles in discussing and enjoying the pastime. They have wheeled in parties, in pairs, and singly, and many of them hold records for century runs and double century runs, which, they believe, indicate their agility and bodily soundness. They have wheeled on business and on pleasure, and they say that their appetites have increased and their doctors’ bills decreased since they learned to ride. Further evidence of the last assertion is the testimony of the physicians themselves, many of whom admit the truth of the statement.
Now the girls who ride on bicycles are to be told by Mrs. Smith that their jolly spins, their bloomers, and their wheeling companions are, directly or indirectly, improper and harmful; and mothers are to be warned against allowing their daughters to ride a wheel. In fact, if the ideas of Mrs. Smith are sound, the girls would do better to spend their savings for tutti-frutti than for bicycles.
The wheelwomen hereabouts are, we believe, a thoughtful and intelligent class, ever ready to receive sound advice and profit by it. If Mrs. Smith can show them the error of their ways, her counsel will no doubt be graciously accepted. Thus far her crusade seems to be but feebly justified, if the opinions of doctors, clergymen, and the fair riders themselves go for anything. It will be interesting, however, to observe the effect of the reformer’s efforts. Perhaps, in her attempt to convert wheelwomen, the men who ride may also get a point or two. She claims that she has already solved the mystery of the bicycle face. Who knows but she may be able to throw new light on other phenomena among wheelmen, such, for instance, as pigeon toes, knock knees, and the monkey back?
If our girls are wheeling to perdition, they certainly ought to know it; but unless the allegation is supported by undeniable facts, they will ignore it sixteen to one.
A later article reports that the consensus of the Paris Academy of Medicine is that:
For girls, especially, it is not only ill-suited but dangerous. The writer knows of two cases of metrorrhagia brought on by mild bicycling. The amount of injury done to the pelvic organs of young girls just reaching womanhood will not be long in making itself felt in the shape of the uterine versions and flexions, or cellulitis, to say nothing of other such serious complications as those mentioned above.
In a separate article on the same page, Dr. Eliza Mosier, a gynecologist and professor of hygiene, notes:
I have yet to see one single woman who has been injured by use of the bicycle. … I have seen woman after woman and girl after girl recover from riding a bicycle from maladies of which I was unable to cure her.
The Expert Opinion
Trawling through 19th Century texts often leaves one scratching one’s head. Take, for instance, this intriguing snippet of medical wisdom:
I am ready to maintain that there are many females who never feel any sexual excitement whatever. … Many of the best mothers, wives, and managers of households, know little of or are careless about sexual indulgences. Love of home, of children, and of domestic duties are the only passions they feel.
As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband’s embraces, but principally to gratify him; and, were it not for the desire of maternity, would far rather be relieved from his attentions. No nervous or feeble young man need, therefore, be deterred from marriage by any exaggerated notion of the arduous duties required from him.
That is from William Acton’s 1871 The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs in Childhood, Youth, Adult Age, and Advanced Life considered in their Physiological, Social, and Moral Relations. A few pages later we have this entertaining anecdote:
I was lately in conversation with a lady who maintains woman’s rights to such an extent that she denied the husband any voice in the matter, whether or not cohabitation should take place. She maintained, most strenuously, that as the woman bears the consequences — has all the discomfort of being nine months in the family-way, and thus is obliged to give up her amusements and many of her social relations — considering too that she suffers all the pains and risks of childbirth — a married woman has a perfect right to refuse to cohabit with her husband. I ventured to inform this strong-minded female that such conduct on her part might be, in a medical point of view, highly detrimental to the health of the husband, particularly if he happened to be strongly sexually disposed. She refused to admit the validity of my argument, and replied that such a man, unable to control his feelings, ought to have married a street walker, not an intellectually disposed person, who could not and ought not to be obliged to devote her time to duties only compatible with the position of a female drudge or wet-nurse.
The idea of autonomy for women was pretty scary back then. And still today in Saudi Arabia where women were only recently allowed to ride bikes — but only for recreation, not for autonomy.