This is a guest post from Lucy, a secondary school student from Carmel College
“For men, the bicycle, in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they already knew in their work and play. To women, however, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.” – Munsey’s Magazine, 1896.
A hundred and twenty years has passed since the woman suffrage movement of the late 19th century. The actions of many women, such as Kate Sheppard, created a movement that led to New Zealand becoming the first self governing country to grant women the vote. The rest of the world gradually followed in the footsteps of the determined woman suffragists of New Zealand. In this post, I discuss how this societal change was enabled by the humble bicycle that we know, love, and use today.
Bicycles arrived in New Zealand in the late 1860’s but early models – known as penny-farthings – were unsafe and difficult to ride due to their heavy iron frame and wooden wheels. While cycling was initially dominated by men, by the 1880’s improvements in technology meant that cycling became less dangerous and was increasingly an activity all genders could enjoy. In doing so, bicycles allowed women to escape from the family and the home. While cycling to the local park or visiting friends across town may not seem like much today, these were freedoms that had previously been denied to many women, at least without the accompaniment of men.
In 1892, the first all-women cycling club in Australasia was formed – The Atalanta Cycle Club. This club was located in Christchurch and boasted members like Kate Sheppard and dress reformer Alice Burn. They organised picnics, day trips and longer tours. Not everyone was pleased by these developments, however, with members of the club receiving verbal and physical abuse. On one occasion when members set off on a cycling excursion wearing knickerbockers, a practical garment promoted by dress reformers, they had stones hurled at them. Nonetheless, women persevered and continued to advocate for their rights. By participating in this club, women continued to use cycling as a way to liberate themselves both politically and socially, inspiring many people to support the campaign for a more equal country.
Women’s cycle clubs became a symbol of freedom and emancipation. Women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony says: “Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world…I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel …the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” By providing freedom through mobility, cycling provided women with an opportunity to organise and advocate for broader freedoms. At the time, rapid societal changes were starting to challenge narrow views of the 19th century in a diverse range of aspects – social, cultural and political. New opportunities for women were evolving in education, medicine, religion, and charitable works. Naturally, people’s attention soon turned to the issue of women’s legal and political rights.
Women knew to have a voice they needed the vote, a say in the legislative process of New Zealand, we see their determination in a quote by Kate Sheppard ‘Do not think your single vote matters much. The rain that refreshes the parched ground is made of single drops’. By the late 19th century the suffrage campaign emerged in New Zealand and was in full swing. All over the country women began protesting and advocating for a movement towards women’s political rights. A movement led by Kate Sheppard and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The suffragists began the conversation of equal rights in politics, organising massive petitions collecting 9,000 signatures in 1891, 20,000 in 1892 and nearly 32,000 – almost one in four women by 1893. And what better way to collect these signatures than via bicycles! Suffragists cycled up and down the country collecting signatures for parliament and performing speeches empowering many to join the movement. Finally, after many years of hard work by women suffragists fighting for political rights on the 19 September, Lord Glasgow signed a bill into law granting all New Zealand adult women rights to vote.
Suffragists celebrated throughout the country, and congratulations poured in from suffrage campaigners in Britain, Australia, the United States and elsewhere. For women in many countries this gave them hope. And just like New Zealand, suffragettes in other countries used the bicycle as an instrument for gaining political rights. The struggle for women’s voting rights was long and difficult and continues apace. We see battles for women’s equality still being fought all over the globe, for example in the fight for equal pay and the right for women to drive in countries like Saudi Arabia.
While striving to address these issues, there is value in remembering the seismic changes that cycling enabled. In their own humble way, bicycles provided freedom and liberation that, in turn, supported further change. Today, as a teenager in Auckland cycling continues to empower people. With my bike I can cycle to school or struggle up the steep hills of my neighbourhood. At moments like these, when I’m huffing and puffing on my bicycle, I try to remember the work the 19th century women’s suffrage movement did to create the opportunity for the more free and just society I live in today. Through my bicycle, I identify with women like Kate Sheppard and pay my respects to the hard work, bravery and determination they possessed.
So my suggestion to all women out there: Go outside, get on your bicycle, and celebrate the legacy the freedom of riding a bike has brought to us all!