James Clarke Masthead
April 30 2012 at 10:06

A few years ago I described how the bicycle was a major factor in the emancipation of women as well as the strengthening of the human gene pool. From the end of the 19th century it allowed more and more young men to court girls in distant villages, thus giving a wider choice of mate and resulting in a more widespread and therefore richer human gene pool.

Above all it spelt an abrupt end to neurotic Victorian female modesty – the end of ankle-length dresses and the shedding of as much as 3kg to 4kg of undergarments.

These were replaced by skirts and bloomers and all over Europe women were suddenly revealing their legs, causing men to walk into lamp-posts and into each other.

Last month I went cycling for the first time with a mixed group. There were five women. They were elegant and fashionable. Three were in their sixties and each looked as much like a cyclist as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela looks like a trampolinist.

But in their cycling livery and crash helmets, they became indistinguishable from men, and their stamina was astonishing to behold. I was left behind within the first five pedal strokes. They appeared to be cycling effortlessly, yet were chattering away. They chattered even going uphill. In fact, they never stopped.

A reader has sent me an article by Chris Connelly in the Mental Floss Magazine (“where knowledge junkies get their fix” – www.mentalfloss.com). It was on women cyclists and the role the bicycle played in the women’s independence movement.

Connelly, an American sports reporter and TV personality, quotes the 19th century American pioneer of women’s emancipation, Susan B Anthony, who said: “I think (bicycling) has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

Connelly says: “Consider the image of a Victorian lady: she’s sickly and pale, relies on men for everything, and occasionally peeks out from behind an ornamental fan (usually before touching her wrist to her forehead and fainting).”

This assumed frailty was seen as a reason for women not being able to study, work or vote. Women working in the fields were different because they weren’t regarded as ladies.

Connelly asks why women are physiologically unchanged since the 19th century yet are nowadays able to live “robust, fainting-free lifestyles”.

It’s a long and fascinating article and it tells of how Victorian women “rarely exercised or engaged in physical activity” and how it was fashionable to be frail and pale. They were not expected to be active outdoors and rarely left town.

A most inhibiting factor was that “ladies” were expected to wear voluminous dresses down to their shoes and tightly laced corsets – hence much of the fainting.

Enter the bicycle.

By the late 1880s bicycles became the rage – among men. In that decade the League of American Wheelmen (cyclists) grew from 40 to 200 000. Women began taking an interest.

The bike was suddenly recognised as being tamer than a horse and a great deal cheaper.

To convert from horse to a bicycle required a total rethink in fashion.

Bloomers evolved. Evolved? No, it was faster than that. An immediate solution to riding a bicycle appeared overnight. Bloomers put an immediate end to getting one’s skirt caught up in the chain or wheel.

Ladies who for centuries had exposed no more than their ankles in public |were now showing a whole leg and |for their pains the early female |cyclists were sometimes denounced as immodest and people even threw things at them.

I felt inclined that way myself last month, but those women were moving too fast.

Contact Stoep: E-mail: jcl@onwe.co.za; Website: www.jamesclarke.co.za;

Blog: http://stoeptalk.wordpress.com


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