Women and cycling
A ‘hobby-horse to destruction’ and ‘healthful exertion’ in late-Victorian Britain – by Hilary Marland
Cycling is nowadays widely and enthusiastically promoted as a means of improving fitness, reducing stress and aiding weight loss for men and women of all ages. The positive vision of female cycling highlighted during the London 2012 Olympics has, though, also revealed the stresses of competitive cycling for young women and the physical and emotional pressures placed on young female bodies and minds.
Today, tucked away in medical journals and on cycling websites, a variety of concerns about the potential medical risks of cycling for women and men have been voiced: ‘cyclists’ nipples’, skin problems, erectile dysfunction. For women, poor posture or excessive cycling has been associated with numbness, soreness and decreased sensation in the pelvic floor, the bacterial infection vaginitis, and ‘bicyclists’ vulva’. This unpleasant swelling of the labia is caused or exacerbated by intensive cycling – perhaps predictable, given that one recent survey found the average female athletic cyclist to be doing 462.5 miles a week! It is nevertheless striking that this association between cycling and gynaecological troubles is historically nothing new.
Reports in specialist publications are today unlikely to generate widespread public debate, nor to challenge the suitability of competitive cycling for women. Yet in the Victorian era, the growth of cycling as a leisure activity for women stirred up medical and public debate on a large scale. Much copy was devoted to its attendant health risks in medical and general-interest journals, women’s and girls’ magazines, and the numerous cycle periodicals which enjoyed wide circulation in the late 19th century. Though some Victorian doctors would themselves become cycle enthusiasts, many expressed anxiety about the impact of the ‘cycling epidemic’ of the 1890s.
Alongside the dangers of tumbles, accidents and collisions, cycling was said to inflict more enduring complaints and chronic ailments upon ‘wheelers’ of both sexes, resulting from poor posture, excessive vibration and pressure on the genitals, over-stimulation of the vital organs, the overtaxing of particular muscle groups and overexertion. It was said to cause fatigue fever, sprains, hernia, varicose veins, haemorrhoids, irritation of the bladder, cardiac and nervous disease, and disorders more distinctive to cycling, including ‘bicycle hand’, ‘bicycle foot’, ‘cyclists’ stoop’ and ‘cyclists’ spine’.
Cycling women and girls attracted particular concern, the female perineum being, as James Whorton has so neatly put it, “the object of such extraordinary medical solicitude throughout the Victorian era”. Dr Robert Ingle thus observed in an 1895 letter to the Cyclists’ Gazette that many girls were unfit to cycle because of inherited or local weakness or blood poverty, and that the parts “enclosed by the hip bone” were most likely to suffer, “which may prove to be disastrous in future years”. Other physicians reported that cycling was likely to cause enlargement and hardening of the pelvic muscles, causing difficulties during childbearing.
F L Gerald described how the cycle craze, which by the mid-1890s was “running at full blast”, not only desecrated the Sabbath but also irritated the pelvic organs and stimulated the carnal instincts, which would cause “a large amount of suffering with young women, unless moderation is used”. The saddle itself was described as source of sexual depravity. New York obstetrician Robert Dickinson concluded that cycling might offer “special rewards” alongside the benefits of general exercise – in that, by improving blood flow and tone in the pelvis, it might actually relieve a range of female complaints – but he also warned that “the friction of the saddle may lead to sexual excitement”. Others agreed.
Dr A T Schofield explained to the readers of the Girl’s Own Paper that when consulted about the value of “this new exercise” by young ladies with their mothers, “I dared not to propose it, as at the time it was hardly supposed to be within the bounds of propriety”. He objected to the long, hard, pear-shaped saddle, recommending in its place “a nice padded cushion, flat in front” and thus safer for girls’ developing nervous systems.
Female character and behaviour were said to make women more susceptible to medical disasters – but also less likely to report medical conditions resulting from cycling, as they “set exceptional store by the amusement, and they are, by nature, shy of saying anything about their health,” as one doctor put it. Cycling could also result in crises of nerves in women and girls already prone to such disorders. One young lady was reported to have “cycled so much that the constant vibration at last unhinged her nerves completely… She sits morose and reserved for hours at a time, and the only thing that amuses her is to ring a cycle bell that has been procured for her.” Lady cyclists were also at risk of developing a “bicycle face”, caused by “the constant anxiety, the everlasting looking ahead, the strain on a nervous disposition, which imparts a hard, set look to the face, and gives a haggard, anxious expression to the eyes that is quite painful to observe”.
Dr Arabella Kenealy explained how, in the hands of misguided persons, the bicycle assumed “the quality of a menace”, liable to produce degeneration of the female organs and “converting womanhood into mannishness”, replacing the feminine attributes of homeliness and kindness with hard selfishness and over-devotion to athletic activity. Worst of all, cycling and excessive athletics more generally put at risk young women’s physical and moral capacity to become good mothers. “By reason of the exhilaration and excitement attending its use,” Keneally argued, the bicycle was “most dangerously prone to convert itself into a hobby-horse which rides its master (more still its mistress) to destruction”.
Perhaps what is most intriguing about the purported risks of cycling for women and girls, however, is not the outrageousness of the claims and the storm of protest cycling provoked, but the rapidity with which this storm died away, to be replaced in a few years by positive interpretations of the potential health benefits. This in part at least is because events simply overtook the debates on health as huge numbers of women took up cycling, and as ideas concerning moderate management of this activity were adopted by medical authors. Provided that young women had a sound level of health to start with and did not overexert themselves, cycling was re-envisaged as an excellent form of exercise, invigorating, health-giving and therapeutically beneficial for a range of ailments.
Dr Edward Turner, Chairman of the General Committee of the National Cyclists Union and author of a ten-part series published in the British Medical Journal on the health benefits of cycling, reported how the bicycle could act “like a charm in restoring health”. He wrote that “few instances of pure ‘nervousness’ survive a regular course of bicycle rides” and that cycling was an excellent remedy for the “bloodlessness of young girls”. During a period when medical literature was dominated by the notion that women had a fixed supply of energy at their disposal, which if overused in one part of the body would deplete resources in another – notably the organs of reproduction – cycling was hailed for its capacity to build physical capacity and strength, and as a means of creating more energy. “Thousands of women, qualifying for general invalidism, have been rescued by cycling,” one enthusiast declared, while working girls achieved “relief untold” from evening spins on their bikes.
Changing views on health and cycling charted a route to the liberation of young women, marking a fundamental shift – widely reported in the cycling and medical press – in conceptions of women’s physical capacity and general robustness. Although women and girls continued to be cautioned not to over-exert themselves, for some writers 20 miles a day was assumed to be an appropriate target for girls in good health. Cycling, one commentator enthusiastically reported, ended “the bondage under which women were held perverted in mind and body alike, till it was a wonder if there were any health left in them”. A revolution was also being wrought for “the stooping, narrow chested, anaemic looking girls who crowd the offices, factories and shops of all our cities”, for whom the countryside would soon be at their doors by means of “that swift steed of steel, the bicycle”.
Cycling also introduced Victorian women and girls to new ideas of hygiene, and kitted many of them out in cycle-appropriate clothing, including “rational dress”, which permitted far greater movement and comfort. It also changed cycling modes and styles – teaching them how get on and off their bikes, how to balance correctly, how to avoid excessive strain and pressure, and how to achieve good posture – practical issues still of importance today. And while generally dissuaded from competitive sports and warned against over-exertion, girls were soon urged to tackle ambitious cycle trips and to enjoy the liberty, thrills and mobility engendered by movement on the bicycle in the open air. Cycling was described as transformative, linking embodiment, pleasure and emancipation with physical and mental fitness: “The feeling of active movement, of the power of free locomotion, the thrill of healthful exertion, and the bounding of the pulses as one speeds along some level stretch, or shoots swiftly down some steep incline… A new world of enjoyment is unlocked to the woman who finds herself a-wheel.”
By the late 1890s large numbers of women and girls had thus taken up cycling in conditions that we can only envy, allowing them to avoid – at least in the countryside – the major health hazards facing cyclists today: pollution and collisions with other traffic.
Hilary Marland is Professor of History at the University of Warwick and author of ‘Health and Girlhood in Britain, 1874–1920’. She welcomes enquiries from those interested in the history of female cycling and cyclists from a medical perspective (firstname.lastname@example.org).