Female cycling’s come long way

To the editor:

After realizing a brief popularity in women’s fashion during the 1850s, the bloomer outfit experienced a major comeback in the 1890s. But instead of formal dress, bloomers had evolved as athletic apparel resembling knickerbockers, tucked just below the knees.

The appearance of this novel attire coincided with bicycling’s rising popularity, and although regarded primarily as a masculine sport, it didn’t take long for bicycling to become an activity in which numerous women participated.

Not all went well. A deepening sense of gloom pervaded those concerned with burgeoning moral turpitude. Many opposed the combination of “bloomers and bicycles,” claiming women who wore bifurcated dresses would adopt other masculine traits such as cigar smoking, or even worse, a carnal desire for other women. Others maintained that a sport that required one to leave the safe environs of one’s home could only lead to immodesty, promiscuity and insatiable sexual desire. Simply put, the bicycle could easily take women to unsavory places where they might be seduced into imprudent sexual conduct. Almost as bad as the fear concerning lesbianism and promiscuity was a belief, that as a result of the pedaling action, riding bicycles would become naught but a form of masturbation.

The gloom was dispelled.

Offended spinsters, frustrated schoolmarms, ministers and many other guardians of virtue rallied to lift their voices in loud denunciation of what they perceived to be not only a disgusting act of self-debasement, but also a heinous sex crime inflicted on one’s self by one’s self — thanks to bloomers and bicycles.

Masturbation as a consequence of bicycling also inspired considerable debate in contemporaneous medical journals, wherein a wide diversity of views emerged, ranging from purely clinical observations to harsh indictments of the sport practiced by bloomer wearers. Divergent claims were ultimately reconciled, however, and a broad consensus was established: the degree of erotic stimulation a woman experienced while pedaling her bicycle depended largely upon the design of the seat.

To charges of masturbation the bloomer wearers had a sharp repartee: “Girls like to bicycle ride, but like to horseback ride even more.” This was delivered in response mostly to upper-crust female equestrians fond of expatiating moral verities to those they deemed as being their lesser sisters. And the bloomer girls added, “Especially if the horse proceeds at a trot.”

Happily, fears diminished with time. Bicycling today is of course an all-inclusive pastime. Ladies, enjoy your outings.

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