The Petaluma women and their “steeds of steel”
“The Bicycle Girl, oh, the Bicycle Girl / With a spinnaker skirt and a sleeve like a furl / Such a freak on the wheel, such a sight on the tire / I’m sure I’ll never love or admire .”
Then, after this dismissive overture, the poet took an unexpected faint.
“The sound of her bell and the hum of her wheel / Are enough to make any man’s skull wobble / And why did she smile lightly spinning? / The Bicycle Girl, oh, the Bicycle Girl / She has tangled my heart in its mystical whirlwind.
As bridal outings, dances and musical concerts began to be supplanted by moonlit bike rides in the countryside, some men turned to the bike as a revealing test of character.
“The woman you see is seldom the woman you think you see,” wrote a man in the Petaluma Courier in 1896. “Riding on bicycles, most women must tell the truth about themselves. At a glance, you can see the audacious and determined beauty of the shy and tender girl. A woman’s health, vigor of mind and body are evident. I would even go so far as to advise a man not to marry before having seen the object of his choice frolicking on a bicycle.
The Victorians definitely disagreed.
The only character trait they believed revealed in a woman on a bicycle was a propensity for sin and a fast life. By riding a bicycle without male supervision, a woman was not only putting herself in danger, she was exposing herself to the temptations of sexual stimulation, which Victorian doctors believed was created by the protruding pommel of bicycle saddles.
Fear of unbridled female sexuality led bicycle manufacturers to introduce special “hygienic” saddles with little or no knobs, as well as high seatposts and straight handlebars that supported a more dignified and more comfortable riding position. feminine than the curved “camelback” style. forcing women to lean provocatively forward in the saddle.
But the most troubling break from tradition for Victorians was fashion. At a time when middle-class women rarely defied the dictates of fashion, the practicality of cycling offered them an opportunity to rethink how they dressed.
Getting rid of restrictive Victorian corsets and large puffy dresses, roller women adopted the “split skirt”, or puffy pants that were cinched at the knee, as their riding attire. Originally championed as part of a dress reform movement by suffragette Amelia Bloomer, split skirts were commonly referred to, for obvious reasons, as “bloomers”. Their appeal quickly spread in the 1890s beyond the practicalities of cycling for non-riding women. When asked about bloomers during her interview with Nellie Bly, Susan B. Anthony was blunt.
“Dress for the occasion,” she says. “A woman doesn’t want flimsy skirts and laces to cling to the wheel. Security, as well as modesty, requires bloomers or extremely short skirts. You know, anyway, women only wear crazy clothes to please the eyes of men. »
In the case of bloomers, the male gaze willingly neglects practical modesty, as the trousers shockingly expose a woman’s ankles, raising another Victorian outcry.
The hotly contested fashion battle that followed forever changed public perceptions of female athletics and proper female behavior. The bloomers allowed female cyclists to jettison the heavy low-framed bikes designed for riding in dress and jump aboard the much lighter diamond-framed bikes used by men, making them more viable competitors in races. like Petaluma’s Independence Day meet.
Sadly, no records were broken on this day in 1896 at Petaluma’s new Wheelman Park – by men Where female cyclists. Likewise, while new bicycle technology has proven liberating for women, it has failed to put them on the fast track to suffrage. Their right to vote was not guaranteed in California until 1911, and nationally until 1920.
The bicycle craze itself proved to be short-lived, dying out before the turn of the century, as improvements in production drastically reduced bicycle prices and novelty among the young middle class wore off. .
In 1903, Joe Steiger’s armory shop made the first sale of an automobile in Petaluma, after which the moral panic over women finding liberation on bicycles shifted to women finding liberation while driving. of a car.
A popular joke of the time described the challenge women faced.
Jack and Jill have just come up a steep hill on their tandem bike, with Jill in front. “Whew, that was a tough climb,” Jill said, leaning over, breathing hard. “The climb was so difficult and we were going so slow that I thought we were never going to get there.”
“Yeah,” said Jack, “good thing I kept the brakes on – or we’d have slid all the way down!”