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The Moral and Medical Panic Over Bicycles

It’s easy to imagine that bicycles were not controversial in their early days, but when women actually started riding them, all sorts of imagined maladies were thought to befall them.

Seemingly everyone is talking about The Social Dilemma, a Netflix documentary in which some of the men behind social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube look upon their creations and despair. An argument made by one of these men, Tristan Harris (formerly of Google), got a fair share of backlash on, irony of irony, social media. In the documentary, Harris claims that social media is a manipulation-based technology instead of being a simple tool. Tools don’t draw the ire of the people. They just sit there. “No one got upset when bicycles showed up. Right?” he asks rhetorically, a smile on his face. “If everyone’s starting to go around on bicycles, no one said, ‘Oh my God, we’ve just ruined society!’”

Except that it turns out that, yes, many people did.

A short history of bicycles and the women who love them

The first bicycle was created in 1817, although its lack of pedals meant that its rider could only travel as fast as their feet could run on the ground. In the 1860s, the addition of pedals turned these contraptions into “velocipedes” (literally “swift feet”), but their wooden or metallic frame combined with the cobblestone roads on which they were ridden led to so much vibration they were nicknamed “boneshakers.” The following decade saw the design of the penny-farthing with its absurdly large front wheel for improved speed and shock absorption. Finally, in the 1890s, the modern bicycle with pneumatic tires came about. It would be easy to see this fairly simple mode of transportation as just a tool, as Tristan Harris described it, but the thing is that the bicycle’s initial popularity rose during a very specific period of time in England: the Victorian era.

Under the reign of Queen Victoria, a woman was typically seen as “the angel in the house,” a man’s opposite whose main purpose was in making and raising children and whose desired traits were to be pure, docile and prude. In fact, womenswear of the time did its best to hide any suggestion of eroticism, such as an exposed ankle. When middle-class and upper-class women started using bicycles to ride around, it led to societal changes that were not always welcomed. They could ride away from the house. They could exercise their muscles and change the shape of their body. Even their clothes had to be revised, as dresses could get caught in the pedals and the wheels, which led to many women adopting bloomers, a type of loose-fitting pant which was not in keeping with the femininity of the period. Bicycles were no mere tools; they were, as the Pessimists podcast on the history of bicycles put it, symbols of a changing culture. And culture has a way of pushing back.

Flying off the handle

Medical doctors were not initially keen on women bicycling. They promoted what could generously be described as misguided fears or, more accurately, as misogynistic pseudoscience. Bicycling was claimed to disgrace a woman’s walk, turning it into “a plunging kind of motion.” Riding a bicycle was thought to alter one’s body right down to the skeleton, with conditions such as “bicycle foot” and “bicycle hand” being deplored. Even your face was not immune to the transformative power of riding the steed of steel: the combination of fierce winds and facial strain was thought to permanently result in “bicycle face!” And all of this exertion was bound to turn a delicate woman’s body into something much too masculine for the times... that is, if the woman could even survive this effort.

It turns out that Victorian stereotypes were wedded to pseudoscientific theories about the female body: it was thought that women were “mentally and physically impaired by the demands of their reproductive apparatus and menstruation cycles.” Riding around on a tricycle was considered fine but on a strenuous bicycle? Why, it might cause a woman’s finite physical energy to be extinguished! Medical journals at the time would seek out anomalies linked to bicycle riding and confuse an association with a cause-and-effect relationship, although perhaps the confusion was a little bit voluntary. Riding a bicycle could cause appendicitis, they reported, internal inflammation and swelling of the throat from all the excitement, and teenage girls whose reproductive system was still developing were thought to be at risk of displacement of the uterus, physical shocks, and all sorts of bodily transformations brought about by the bicycle that would render them unable to bear children.

And this is to say nothing of the impact of riding a bicycle on one’s mental health. From an 1894 article in The New York Times entitled “Lunacy in England”, it was noted that “there is not the slightest doubt that bicycle riding, if persisted in, leads to weakness of mind, general lunacy, and homicidal mania.” Writers accused bicycle riders of mowing down pedestrians “without distinction,” leaving them for dead with complete apathy. The wild exhilaration of racing on a bicycle was thought to have a negative effect on the nervous system. The strain of always keeping its unstable frame balanced while riding it was claimed to build an unhealthy tension in the nerves, as if the human brain was simply not capable of handling this amount of stress. The movement of the wheel itself, going round and round in circles, could make one mad. And when it came to women, the shape of the saddle worried many that Victorian riders might experience something akin to sexual pleasure... without a man.

Beware the ungodly speed of the locomotive!

They say hindsight is 20/20, and it’s safe to say in 2020 that riding a bicycle has not been shown to permanently distort your face or cause anyone to turn homicidal. The concentration needed to keep a bicycle propped up while riding it is nothing compared to the stress we are all experiencing these days.

Any technology is birthed within a culture and can thus be appropriated or repudiated accordingly. Trains, because of their unprecedented high speeds, led to speculation that women’s bodies, “not designed to go at 50 miles an hour,” might experience a flying-out of their uterus! I can only imagine what these armchair critics would have conjured up envisioning a woman in a rocket lifting off into space.

Take-home message:
- Bicycles were thought by many in the Victorian era to lead to killing rampages and to render women exhausted and incapable of bearing children
- Tools and technologies do not exist in a vacuum; they are shaped, for good and ill, by the culture in which they are created


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