Women off the leash

MARTINA SCHWAGER reviews Dörte Blechmann’s book‚ Wehe wenn sie losgelassen (Once you let them off the leash…), which charts the early days of women’s cycling in Germany.

The old woman who lives opposite goes shopping by bike. My niece is nine, and rides her bike to school. A female friend of mine is an endurance athlete and goes everywhere on a racer. Women riding bicycles – so what?

“A lady should always be a lady, and a person of a certain station in life should particularly avoid being taken in by the growing popularity and glamour of cycle sport. It is an extremely degrading performance when a lady in flimsy racing costume scorches along, often with her hair loose, and races along the track: a chance for the rabble to kick up a racket, and an occasion for repugnance and loathing for the decent public of the Tribünenplatz.”

So it wasn't always so natural. The man pontificating on women cycle racing was one Dr. C. Fressel, and a century ago he was one of the moderates: he didn't damn cycling women lock, stock and barrel. How it was then, how the ‘weaker sex' came to ride the bicycle, and the obstacles they had to overcome, are described in Dörte Blechmann's (German-language) book: ‘Wehe wenn sie losgelassen! Über die Anfänge des Frauenradfahrens in Deutschland' (Once you let them off the leash! The early days of cycling for women in Germany).

Dörte Blechmann has livened the book up with many contemporary quotations from doctors, scientists, journalists, and self-proclaimed experts – both men and women. Images of bikes and women cyclists complete the picture: women almost suffocating in the obligatory corsets of the day, who nonetheless found the energy to pedal themselves to (a little) freedom.

This book is no dry academic treatise, yet its academic worth is indisputable. It shows how cycling accelerated the process of social change around the turn of the century, and how it contributed to women's emancipation.

The book “centres on the still-disputed question of the connection between cycling and women's emancipation”, writes Dörte Bleckmann in her introduction. She investigates this question step by step. The chapter ‘History of the ladies' bicycle' amuses and informs through its pictures – the ‘sidesaddle ladies' model from James Starley is particularly odd, with both cranks on the same side of the front wheel, and the saddle and rear wheel off to one side. The second chapter concerns relationship between women and their bikes. In the last decade of the last century, only a few women of the bourgeoisie were able to afford the privilege of cycling. But by the turn of the century the bicycle had lost its ‘social exclusivity'. Its role as a ‘social boundary' between upper and lower classes was now fulfilled by the automobile.

Blechmann discusses health, sexuality, clothing, rules of etiquette and cycle sport in the following chapters, showing clearly the extent to which women on bikes aroused bitter controversy. Women were seen as the weaker sex, by nature and culture inferior to men. In ‘better circles' they were always ill, pale, nervous and easily excited, and could be entrusted only with sewing, playing the piano, light housework and short promenades. It was only when women had begun to discover cycling as the source of a new lust for life that some doctors and scientists recognised the fact that exactly these weaknesses were caused by lack of movement, confinement to the house and a lack of mental stimulation.

Men were not the only ones angry about transgressions of ‘accepted standards'. Many women warned their contemporaries of the dangers of over-exertion or over-ambition: “We want no belligerent, glory-seeking Amazons” pronounced the editorial in a book ‘Vademecum for lady cyclists', by the (lady) editor of ‘Vienna Fashion'. She went on: “A lady cyclist should on no account become so heated that she not only leaves very much to be desired in terms of appearance, but is also unable to discharge her proper duties in society.”

It was all, as Dörte Blechmann explains, about redefining the ‘done thing' for women, and in particular, what was appropriate clothing for women to wear. Cycling in the obligatory long dresses, complete with many undergarments covering the legs, was nearly impossible. Despite a whole series of imaginative, if largely impractical inventions, such as the ‘Split leg dress', trousers eventually won through. Blechmann writes: “Straight away a trouser-wearing woman gives the impression of a thinking, independent person, who has thrown off the last vestiges of conventional shyness, and profited in courage and self-confidence. The dress was previously the definitive sign of distinction between men and women, and trousers aroused the first anxiety about this distinction”.

It goes without saying that doing the ‘done thing' was not compatible with cycle racing for women. “Cycle sport, and sport in general”, says Blechmann, “contributed to a ‘loosening' of the strict gender hierarchy. In a society which stressed the differences between the sexes, not only in clothing, but also in behaviour, and which based its hierarchy on these differences, joint activities and comradly contact between men and women in sport brought into question the underlying assumptions of that society.”

Sport posed another even greater menace to the sensibilities of the time. Sport clubs and associations had a strong internal and external influence on politics. Yet in Germany, this opportunity for influence wasn't taken up. “In New Zealand, women's cycle sport clubs weighed in heavily for clothing reform and women's emancipation, while in German-speaking Europe the women's clubs had no political self-confidence.” In England too, women cyclists were publicly militant and politically more powerful. In Oxford in 1897, for example, they organised a public demonstration, which went down in the history books as the ‘Trouser Seminar'.

So, the female cyclist no longer has to ride in knickerbockers, high-cut blouse or a ‘split-leg dress'. Nor does she feel guilty about neglecting housework or etiquette when she sets off for a spin in the country with the children in a child trailer.

Dörte Bleckmann's book ‘Wehe wenn sie losgelassen! Über die Anfänge des Frauenradfahrens in Deutschland' is published by Verlag Maxi Kutschera, Gera, Leipzig 1998, ISBN 3 931 965 04-X. German language only.