One of the underappreciated but significant developments on the road to women's emancipation in the United States was the introduction of the bicycle.
The significance of the two-wheeler is brought to life at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Historical interpreter Julie Garner — the Wheelwoman — portrays Louise, a fictional character from the late 1890s, as she rides around the museum on an 1898 Gendron Wheel Company Reliance model D.
"She is your typical everyday woman,” Garner said. “She is a wife and mother of two. And she is out on her first solo independent adventure all by herself. And it's very exciting for her because she has never been out by herself before."
Garner's bike rides are part of the museum's History Alive program. Interpreters portray fictional or real historical characters, bringing America's past to life for museum visitors.
In the era before automobiles, bicycles were a means of affordable personal mobility. From the 1880s to the 1910s, Americans took to the wheels, sparking a nationwide bicycle craze. For riders — especially women — bicycles were also a means of independence.
The featured program at the museum shows visitors how the new freedoms afforded by cycling empowered women to challenge social norms.
"Not only do we have set information that we are helping the visitors to discover, but also we are able to answer lots of questions based on the topic,” Garner said. “So the topic of this program is the bicycle boom of the 1890s and how it really fuels the women's independence movement."
Bicycles were first introduced in the U.S. in the late 1860s, "and went through a number of design changes through the 1880s," exhibit curator Roger White said. "And yet they were still for men. But by the 1890s, the drop frame design made it possible for women to ride bicycles, too."
That design allowed for safety while wearing a skirt, Garner explains.
The bicycle she rides at the museum "has a drop frame,” she said, “so a lady can mount the wheel gracefully in a skirt. And a skirt guard over the top of the chain and spokes, so my skirt doesn't get caught as I ride."
The bicycle craze fed into the Rational Dress Movement, which helped liberate women from corsets and other encumbering garments. Baggy trousers called bloomers came into fashion.
"When it happened, it gave women personal freedom to go out on the road," White said. "They can go out for pleasure riding, they can go out with friends. Some even form bicycle riding clubs of women only."
Bicycle historians say the impact of the two-wheeler on female emancipation should not be underestimated. American feminist Susan B. Anthony, who played a pivotal role in the 19th-century women's suffrage movement, called the bicycle the "freedom machine."