Last month in her talk “From Spokes to Sprockettes: A History of Women and the Bicycle,” Professor Jennifer Dill discussed the strong overlap between women interested in bicycling and women interested in woman suffrage. Indeed, the bicycle became an important instrument for an increasing intellectual, emotional, and economic independence of many women.
Dill’s talk, and the writings of many, draw examples over a half century or more, and from across at least two continents. Particularly in an advocacy context, reflections can sometimes become idealized and a bit hazy. This picture of “law abiding women suffragists” was taken in London in 1913, for example. There’s a social history of bicycling, however, and the meaning of a woman on a bike in London in 1913 is different from a woman on a bike in Portland in 1913, and from a woman on a bike in Portland in 1895.
Think of it this way. The significance of a person using a walkman in 1990 is very different from the significance of a person with a walkman in 2010. Cycles of innovation, technology, and fashion weren’t so compressed a century ago, of course, but as we look at transitions in transportation technology circa 1900, a twenty year interval still makes a difference.
So what about here in Oregon?
We are still far from a complete story of the meanings and activities around bicycling circa 1900. Without saying anything about causation, I believe there’s an interesting and not surprising – maybe even obvious – correlation between women on bikes and the bicycle path building. Essentially this period lasts about decade, from 1895 to 1905. The limits of 1895 and 1905 are not definite, of course, but the are a good guide, and 1899 will be a convenient center point. Additionally, women did bike past 1905, but society leaders did not. At this time bicycling lost prestige and shifted from being a leading edge activity of high-status to being a lower-status activity. (more…)