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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 10, Number 3, September 2016
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Claire Everett
Northallerton, North Yorkshire, England


Late Bloomer

Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel . . . the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.

—Susan B. Anthony

How far I’ve come from that virgin tailgunner, who, with fresh-out-of-the-mould blancmange legs made her first circuit of the town with every corner, or suggestion of a cross-wind jiggling the tea table of her being. Now even hills of Kettlewellian proportions don’t faze me and I’m not averse to passing comment, in no uncertain terms, on a bullish BMW driver’s carve-up or tractors who are completely out of the mind that is apparently their own, like tightrope walkers shod with Doctor Martens, wielding nun chucks.

two wheels
eating up the miles
beneath a hunger moon—
my middle finger
also liberated

It turns out the humble bicycle loosened a woman’s stays as much as shackling herself to the railings did. Weary of standing by with a cinched waist and a bee in her bustle she decided it was high time she had a taste of that new-fangled freedom. But unless she broke the bars of her wardrobe, what was a girl to do? Heaven forbid she became associated with the likes of Mary Walker—or any of the suffragists-in-pants brigade, come to that—or those Parisian women who were already happy to parade their cycling chic; worse still, the scantily-clad Velocipedestrienne of the bawdy music halls who had high-kicked their way to a questionable freedom. Perhaps best she content herself with one of the heavier tricycles which she could just about ride without modifying her attire. Besides, there was no fear she could ride too far, or for too long. In fact, why did a young lady want to ride at all? If she must, then let it be with a chaperone! Better still, why not consider a ‘sociable’? That way she could ride in tandem with her male companion, he (being stronger, of course) would busy himself with powering and steering the beast and she, seated a little lower at the helm, could simply admire the scenery, oblivious to the rod she was making for the back of every female following in her wake. (That said, at least her pilot could see she wasn’t pedalling). However she chose to dabble, let it be understood: cycling was not for the fairer sex, they simply did not have the constitution for such pursuits.

one-handedly
working the mangle,
a child on her hip . . .
at her feet, wild violets
pushing through the cracks

Meanwhile, her American counterpart was going great guns, tricycling further each day in her new lightly-boned corset, recently purchased with a year’s cycling insurance, worth one hundred dollars, thrown in for free. And on the same shores there continued to be those insufferable women determined to defy the dress code of moral decency, by venturing out unaccompanied, their undergarments billowing, their forearms exposed, their bosoms unlaced.

an affront
to common decency
wheel-women
trading hoop-skirts for bloomers
and spinning more than wool

These contraptions already deemed by many as cogs in the Devil’s machinations, were now being used for feats of endurance—time trials over six days (observing the Sabbath). Bad enough that in mounting the bicycle in the first place, the female was at risk of ruining her delicate complexion, over-heating her blood, skewing her graceful symmetry, misaligning her pelvis and internal organs; now, in competing in her own version of the male event (albeit for a maximum of four hours a day) she had passed the point of no return to the modesty and deportment demanded of her sex.

like no man
the feel of a saddle
between her legs
the joys of the open road
the scents, the speed, the view!

Sad to think that in the 21st century three times more men than women cycle regularly and the number of female cyclists is actually in decline. Come on girls, we have the likes of Debbie Reynolds and Alice Hawkins to thank for this hard-won Lycra . . .


Editor's Note: Previously published in Talking in Tandem.

Author’s Notes:

"Kettlewellian" refers to Kettlewell in the North Yorkshire Dales.

June 1894: Annie Kopchovsky ("Londonderry") became the first woman to ride around the world, in response to a wager that she couldn’t do what Thomas Stevens had done ten years before her. She was in her early twenties, petite, with no cycling experience, Jewish in an anti-Semitic time, married with three young children. Her trip saw her transition through the various stages of dress reform, from skirt and blouse, to bloomers, to men’s clothing.

Less than a year later, Debbie Reynolds aged 16 rode from Brighton to London and back in eight and a half hours wearing “rational dress.” Scorned by her critics she won the admiration of dress reformers and suffragists alike.

In 1914, Alice Hawkins, a suffragette, outraged the good people of Leicester by riding around the city in pantaloons.

The Rational Dress Society founded in 1881 expanded on the US reformer Amelia Bloomer’s campaign for practical attire for women. Denouncing boned corsets and fashions that deformed the female form, the Society believed no woman should wear more than seven pounds of underwear and promoted a new style of cycling garb consisting of a long coat worn over a divided skirt.

Concerns that the act of cycling and contact with the saddle might prove sexually arousing to the female resulted in a patent for a specially designed "hygiene" saddle involving a recession which would prevent the "offending parts" coming into contact with the seat.

The words of Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), American social reformer and feminist, as cited in the epigraph can be found in Strickland, Bill, ed. The Quotable Cyclist, New York: Breakaway Books, 1997, p 324.

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