get there fast: gender and cycling
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.