Cycling has always had an intimate relationship with female emancipation. The act of straddling a saddle, the rigorous pushing round of the pedals and the physical exertion of the body hardly allows for the traditional nineteenth-century delicate and sedate feminine ideal. It was the rise of the 'lady cyclist' in the late 1880s, with their practical riding clothes and independent movement, that caused American civil rights leader Susan B. Anthony to exclaim "I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel ... the picture of free, un-trampled womanhood". Yet in recent times the bike has suffered a decline in female support and, as the latest exhibition by the Women's Library points out, only just over 30 per cent of cyclists in London are female.
Reminding us of the historic place of the bike at the heart of feminist political activity, this small display seeks to rekindle the connection between woman and bicycle. Showing photographs of some of the major feminist figures from the last century, including Frances Willard and Myra Sadd Brown, standing proudly with their bikes, the exhibition demonstrates how the machine was adopted by the feminist movement from the creation of the very first safety bicycle. And what is today an everyday means of transportation was in the late nineteenth century considered a highly controversial machine, helping to unravel the fabric of society by allowing women to "evade their chaperones, abandon their families or become manly". The Women's Library exhibition shows how every aspect of cycling culture helped to expand the British female identity over the last century.
Items on display illustrate the gradual changes owning a bike could bring to women. One book, Bicycling for Ladies by M.E. Ward, encourages women to learn basic mechanical skills to service their own bikes, whilst photographs show the development of modernised 'rational dress' for riding, and the congregation of numerous cycling groups.
Aside from the lifestyle changes owning a bike brought, the exhibition shows how the suffragettes used their beloved bikes in pretty radical ways, tearing up golf greens with their wheels and using their bikes as fake bombs. Organisations such as the Women's Social and Political Union recognised early on the powerful spectacle of the mass bike ride, and cycling is shown to be not only a tool for rapid organisation and flyering but also as a highly visual demonstration of female mobility and self-sufficiency. An advert on show, for a limited-edition red white and green N.U.W.S.S bicycle, is a clever marketing idea, demonstrating the very direct correlation between bike and female suffrage.
But perhaps the most interesting piece on display is a letter from feminist Ray Stachey. Whilst on a mass National Union of Women's Suffrage campaign bike ride she became lost, and recounts her exhilarating experience. She declares, "it was one of the most exciting things I have ever done ... moving along dark roads speculating on our chances of spending the night in a ditch: a thick fog came on". Apart from the initial political motivation of the bike ride, Stachey's letter reveals the essential thrill and adventure of riding a bike - a very new experience for women at that time. An audio extract of Sylvia Pankhurst at the end of the exhibition, describing her early experiences of accompanying her sister on bike rides, seems to capture this same feeling. The exhilaration of physical activity and self-sufficiency that come with cycling is shown anew in this display. Through the eyes of beginners, Strachey and Pankhurst, who mounted their bikes when cycling was a highly politically-charged action, its basic enjoyment is brought to life and highlighted.
Whilst women today do not face the same frustrations and restrictions as the suffragettes of the last century, this exhibition certainly throws light on modern cycling culture. If quite small, the display serves as some essential inspiration for women to get back on their bikes.