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get there fast: gender and cycling

September 16, 2010
Raleigh bicycle poster 1932, originally uploaded by carltonreid.

I was doing an image search for a teaching power point yesterday when I came across this Raleigh ad from the 30s. While all vintage bike posters have a certain charm and appeal to them, this one just blew me away. I’m used to seeing women posing next to bikes in early twentieth-century images, but usually looking so demure, proper, and relaxed.

In my research (unrelated to teaching), I have looked into the history of the bike and found that – not surprisingly – safety bicycles were advertised to women as a sort of ‘couch on wheels’. Think of it as an extension of your living room, a way to enjoy the country side on leisurely rides, without the exertion and fuss of walking. Around the turn of the century, women were expected to primarily cycle in parks while men were seen taking to the highways or busier urban roads.

This did not, however, deter those few ambitious and determined ladies to start seeing what else a bike could do besides simply rolling along. The first women to compete in a bicycle race did so as early as 1868. Women’s professional cycling took off with the introduction of the safety bicycle in the 1880s and 90s, drawing huge spectator numbers with the novelty of their performance.

Clare Simpson, in her article Capitalising on Curiosity: Women’s Professional Cycle Racing in the Late-Nineteenth Century writes, “the most ardent supporters of women’s professional riding came from within the circle of those most committed to either the philosophy of women’s social equality, or who were passionately interested in cycle racing of any kind” (53).

And this is something I’ve come across in much of my research as well. It seems that this little invention called the bicycle brought men and women together as much as some sought to use it as a further divider of the gender spheres. Much has been said about how the bicycle has given women independence and mobility and thus furthered women’s rights, but that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about the power of this shared passion – cycling – to bring people of different classes and genders together despite ingrained notions about propriety and separation. It’s no wonder that cycling enthusiasts merged with equal rights supporters and saw beyond the gender line to what was really at stake – fast cyclists (be it men or women) putting on a respectable athletic performance.

So I loved finding this 1932 poster by the Raleigh company, showing a strong and powerful woman speeding to her destination. Her racing foremothers would have been proud. Thanks, Raleigh!


For more on this, check out:

Mackintosh, Philip Gordon and Glen Norcliffe. “Men, Women and the Bicycle: Gender and Social Geography of Cycling in the Late Nineteenth-Century.” Cycling and Society. Eds. Dave Horton, Paul Rosen and Peter Cox. Burlington: Ashgate, 2007. 153-177.

Oddy, Nicholas. “Bicycles.” The Gendered Object. Ed. Pat Kirkham. New York: Manchester University Press, 1996. 60-69.

Simpson, Clare S. “Capitalising on Curiosity: Women’s Professional Cycle Racing in the Late-Nineteenth Century.” Cycling and Society. Eds. Dave Horton, Paul Rosen and Peter Cox. Burlington: Ashgate, 2007. 47-65.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Maria permalink
    September 16, 2010 15:12

    This is fascinating stuff. In case you haven’t already come across this resource, there’s a wonderful book called ‘Of bicycles, bakelites, and bulbs’ that starts with a carefully researched history of the evolution of the bicycle. The books is a science and technology studies classic that addresses the question of how technology comes into being. With the bicycle, the author shows that our modern understanding of the bicycle – as a means of general recreation and stable transportation was the outcome of a contested process, not a foregone conclusion.

    • September 16, 2010 16:10

      Maria – thanks so much for the resource! I didn’t know of this particular book, I’m sure to go look for it at the library though. Thanks, again!

  2. September 16, 2010 15:12

    Love, LOVE the poster! I love that she’s racing, but still looks fabulous doing it.

    You’ve probably already seen this in your research, but I love this video of Dora Rineheart She did long distance cycling in the 1890’s and was quite a little rebel in her time. Pretty cool stuff.

    • September 16, 2010 16:18

      What a great video! Thanks for posting this here, I hadn’t seen it, although the name dora Rineheart sounds familiar and I might have read about her in brief in one of my sources. Now I want to look her up and find out more about her. She sounds pretty impressive.

      • September 16, 2010 20:03

        I have been hard pressed to find a lot of information on Miss Dora, but I know it must be out there – somewhere. There is a bit (a small bit) of information on her in this article: from a few years ago, but I think it’s covered in the video as well. There’s another article here:, but beyond that I haven’t found much. Let me know if you do find more on her – I’d love to read up on her.

      • September 16, 2010 21:41

        Thanks for these links, G.E.! I was just at my college library checking out a bunch of books on cycle history (in search of women’s roles in that). I will let you know if I find out more about Dora Rineheart in my research!

  3. September 16, 2010 20:24

    I love seeing those vintage bike posters! In your last paragraph you stated “So I loved finding this 1832 poster…” You meant 1932, right? Although it would be even more impressive if it was 1832 :)

    Speaking of gender and bicycles, there was a nice story in the NY Times about a boy (Abel) in Zimbabwe wishing for a bicycle to decrease his 3 hour walk to school. The organization World Bicycle Relief donated bicycles to many school children there, including Abel. What was especially nice was that they attempted to ensure that the girls who received bikes wouldn’t have them taken away since girls are often perceived as “too insignificant to merit something so valuable.” It included a cute photo of the girls biking in their school uniforms (skirts). Makes me very thankful for the freedoms I have as a woman in the U.S.!

    • September 16, 2010 21:38

      Traci – oops, thanks for catching that typo!

      And thanks for the link and info on that story – so great! And I also didn’t know about the World Bicycle Relief organization, it sounds wonderful and I’m excited to learn of it.

  4. September 17, 2010 17:37

    Wow! So many great sources here. I can’t wait to get into all these articles, books, and videos.

  5. September 18, 2010 12:22

    First of all, I love that poster, and would buy one if anyone sells them, and hang it in my home office! Thanks to all for the links, which I will go back to when I have more time. For me, bicycle riding has always represented independence. I taught myself to ride by leaning my sister’s bike against a cyclone fence when I was 5. No training wheels, no adult helping me. It was my mode of transportation, adventure, and escape as a child, and teen. And I think riding my bike today still represents all of those things, which is why I love riding so much!

    • September 18, 2010 14:21

      Maureen – that is such an awesome childhood story! And you echo my thoughts exactly – when I first saw the poster, I had the same idea. I want it framed in my home office, it’s such a gorgeous and powerful image of a woman on a bike, it would be fun to look at daily. I haven’t located a copy for sale yet but if I do I will let you know. Please do the same!

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