Lena Wånggren is a Research Fellow in English at the University of Edinburgh, where she also teaches, and at Edinburgh Napier University. She works specifically on questions of gender in late nineteenth-century literature and culture, with a specific interest in embodiment and material cultures. She has a book forthcoming (2017) on gender and technology in late nineteenth-century literature, and also publishes on feminist activism, pedagogy, and the medical humanities.
What does it mean to be a dangerous woman? In some parts of the world, and in some historical contexts, riding a bicycle might frame you as dangerous – dangerous to the established gender traditions, class structures, or even to biology itself.
The 2012 Saudi Arabian film Wadjda (dir. Haifaa al-Mansour) puts at its centre the eleven-year-old girl Wadjda, whose highest wish is to ride a bicycle. She saves her money, and enters a Quran recitation competition in order to obtain prize money to buy the green bicycle she has seen in a local shop. While Wadjda’s mother at first tells her that she ‘won’t be able to have children’ if she rides a bike, and begs her daughter to stop acting ‘like a boy’, in the end it is this same mother who buys Wadjda the coveted machine. Set against a backdrop of traditional gender restrictions, for Wadjda the bicycle comes to represent rebellion, freedom, and control of her own body.
The modern bicycle first arrived in the shape of the Rover ‘Safety’ design of 1884, with a chain drive to the rear wheel and a year later featuring a diamond frame, and coupled with pneumatic tires in 1887. While earlier cycles had existed such as the high-wheeler or ‘penny-farthing’, with its large front wheel, and the more expensive tricycle, these had been reserved for men and for wealthy women. But the safety bicycle, with its adjustable handlebar and saddle to fit different physiques, was relatively easy to ride, and – importantly – affordable. This new machine offered opportunities for city folk to ride into the countryside, and for women to move unchaperoned into new spheres.
Women’s rights campaigners soon took up the wheel to champion their cause. The suffragist Susan B. Anthony famously stated in 1896 that bicycling had done ‘more to emancipate women than anything else in the world’ (10) through giving women a sense of freedom and self-reliance, while her colleague Frances Willard rejoiced in ‘perceiving the impetus that this uncompromising but fascinating and illimitably capable machine would give to that blessed “woman question”’ (38). The bicycle and a specific sense of freedom, a control of one’s own body, become inextricably linked. As Patricia Marks writes in her book on the bicycle, all forms of exercise ‘were forceable reminders that a woman’s body was her own to control … Moving within the relative freedom of the gymnasium or playing field, or more independently wheeling down the road, however, she was responsible for her own health and well-being’ (1990: 202). Literary depictions of women bicycling emphasised the freedom felt by women as they could, perhaps for the first time, be in control of their own bodies. In British-Canadian writer Grant Allen’s 1897 novel The Type-Writer Girl, the main character Juliet praises the freedom gained from both the geographic mobility and the loosening of social constrictions offered by the bicycle:
How light and free I felt! When man first set woman on two wheels with a pair of pedals, did he know, I wonder, that he had rent the veil of the harem in twain? I doubt it, but so it was. A woman on a bicycle has all the world before her where to choose; she can go where she will, no man hindering. (50)
This new female freedom was however not accepted without a fight. Debates were carried out in both popular and medical periodicals, as to whether or not the bicycle was dangerous to women – or would make women dangerous.
Both periodicals and certain medical professionals saw the bicycle as threatening to ‘unsex’ women: not only might it cause the loss of the woman’s reproductive abilities, but also of her feminine characteristics. Mental or nervous disorders were predicted, and warnings were issued about getting a ‘bicycle face’ or ‘face of muscular tension’, a ‘peculiar strained, set look’ caused by the double exertion on both ‘nerves’ and balance when riding (Kenealy 1899: 641; Shadwell 1897: 795). Shadwell explains the occurrence of the ‘bicycle face’:
The vera causa seems to lie in the extreme instability of the two-wheeled machine, which can never be left to itself for a single moment without dismounting. … With set faces, eyes fixed before them, and an expression either anxious, irritable, or at best stony, they pedal away, looking neither to the right nor to the left, save for an instantaneous flash, and speaking not at all, except a word flung gasping over the shoulder at most. … To ride it safely entails a double strain – a general one on the nerves and a particular one on the balancing centre. (1897: 795-6)
While ‘bicycle face’ threatened cyclists of all genders, women were considered to be at more risk because of their supposedly delicate physique.
The early woman doctor Arabella Kenealy argued that physical exercise detracted from feminine sensitivity. In ‘Woman as an Athlete’ (1899), Kenealy laments the present system ‘which sets our mothers cycling all day and dancing all night and our grandmothers playing golf’ (1899: 644). One of Kenealy’s case studies features a young gentle woman who, after having started to bicycle, stops caring about her family and about children; she becomes brusque, her movements ‘muscular and less womanly’, and her voice becomes ‘assertive’. She does not have time any more for nursing and helping others, as she ‘is off bicycling upon her account’ (640). Physical exercise, Kenealy claims, threatens to unsex the modern woman; such a woman is ‘debasing her womanhood, in becoming a neuter’ (645).
Satirical verses and pictures of ‘unwomanly’ female cyclists abounded in magazines such as Punch. They linked the bicycle to an uncontrolled female independence, with bicycle-riding often ending with the woman in question abandoning her husband and children for her bicycle. In the c. 1901 stereograph picture ‘The New Woman – Wash Day’, the woman’s bicycling habits – coupled with her smoking and wearing ‘bloomers’ – lead her to abandon her husband to do the laundry. The ‘dangerous woman’ on a bicycle was also employed by advertisers who sought to profit on the ‘scandalous’ character and novelty of the figure. An example of this is the 1897 advertisement in The Graphic for Elliman’s Universal Embrocation, which features a cycling woman dressed in a bicycling suit, including knickerbockers (see lead image for this post).
Similarly, in the 1895 satiric poem ‘Sexomania’ published in Punch, articulates cycling and other types of physical exercise (‘Bicycling, footballing, scarce human’) as a threat to traditional notions of gender:
Bicycling, footballing, scarce human,
All wonder now ‘Which is the woman?’
But a new fear my bosom vexes;
To-morrow there may be no sexes!
Unless, as end to end all the pother,
Each one in fact becomes the other.
(‘Sexomania’ 1895: 203)
In the process of sex reversal imagined in the Punch poem, the woman and man finally ‘in fact become[s] the other’.
In addition to the ridicule presented by the periodical press, early female cyclists had to endure much harassment from their conservative surroundings. The 1896 Handbook for Lady Cyclists describes some of the early fears that the bicycle might be ‘unsexing’ women: ‘It was openly said that a woman who mounted a bicycle hopelessly unsexed herself; she was stared at and remarked upon in town, and hooted and called after in country districts’ (Davidson 1896: 10). Mary E. Kennard, too, in her 1896 A Guide Book for Lady Cyclists comments on the difficulty of being a pioneer in lady cycling, and the ideas of gender reversal that it involved: ‘the few persons belonging to the feminine sex, who were bold enough to venture abroad on a wheel, were considered mannish and fast to a degree’ (1896: 1).
This perceived ‘unsexing’ of women bicyclists may seem strange to us today. However, still today, women (and other genders) enjoy the physical freedom offered by the bicycle – and some still seem dangerous by their riding. Just like early female bicyclists in the United Kingdom defied conventions and kept cycling despite criticism, women today continue to cycle. Like the young bicycling heroine of Wadjda, Iranian women defy conservative leaders’ claims that women’s cycling is a threat to their modesty, by sharing images and videos online of themselves cycling. As Iranian women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad, founder of the social media movement My Stealthy Freedom, states: ‘As the wheels of history, or the bicycle in this case turn – so will women advance’ (qtd in Agerholm 2016).
Women not only in countries such as Saudia Arabia and Iran continue fighting for their right to bicycle, but also in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the world. There are numerous accounts by feminist groups such as Hollaback! of sexual and other harassment of women cyclists, and women continue to fight back against such discrimination. Women in public spaces, in control of their own bodies and enjoying physical freedoms, seem dangerous to patriarchal traditions throughout history and throughout the world.
Agerholm, Harriet (2016), ‘Iranian mother and daughter defy fatwa on women cycling in video message’, The Independent, 20 September 2016.
Allen, Grant [pseud. Olive Pratt Rayner] (1897), The Type-Writer Girl, London: C. Arthur Pearson.
Anthony, Susan B (1896), ‘Champion of Her Sex’, New York Sunday World, 2 February 1896, 10.
Kenealy, Arabella (1899), ‘Woman as an Athlete’, Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review, 45.266, 636-45.
Marks, Patricia (1990), Bicycles, Bangs and Bloomers: The New Woman in the Popular Press, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
‘Sexomania. By an Angry Old Buffer’ (1895), Punch, or, the London Charivari, 27 April 1895, 203.
Shadwell, A[rthur] (1897), ‘The Hidden Dangers of Cycling’, The National Review, 28.168, 787-96.
Willard, Frances E. (1895), A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride a Bicycle with Some Reflections by the Way, London: Hutchinson.
Wadjda (2012), Dir. Haifaa al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia.