ExperiencePlus! Blog

In Praise of Bicycling and Women by Nineteenth-Century American Women: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Frances Willard

In Praise of Bicycling and Women by Nineteenth-Century American Women: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Frances Willard
“The world is our great book of beauty and romance, and on your cycle you can gradually master it, chapter by chapter, volume by volume” (Elizabeth Robins Pennell 1890).
“Sighing for new worlds to conquer, I determined that I would learn to bicycle” (Frances E. Willard 1895).
“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipElizabeth Robins Pennell and Joseph Pennellate women than anything else in the world” (Susan B. Anthony, 1896).

Nineteenth-century women, and more specifically bourgeois and upper class women, had become the human embodiments of domesticity and religious piety, thanks to a convergence of economic, religious and social factors and events. These women were repressed at many levels: physically by corsets and long, heavy skirts, financially by complete dependence on the male members of their immediate family and emotionally and intellectually by the unwritten but powerful roles that societal mores had imposed on them as “angels of the hearth” and “managers” of the household. The scholar Eric Leed, urges us to consider women’s traditional association with what he calls “sessility” or settlement, fixed place, as an historical event, “in which human groups achieve permanent relation to territory” and “not a national female predisposition” (116). Nonetheless, it is a fact that throughout history and until recently, very few women, compared to men, benefited from mobility, described by Leed as “the first, pre-historical human condition” (4). Woman’s identification with a fixed place, or home, has prevented most women from experiencing the pleasures and tribulations of motion, as well as the benefits and miseries of travel. Throughout the centuries and especially after different human groups achieved a certain level of settled life, woman’s travels from “home” has been considered indecorous, dangerous or uncomfortable to be socially acceptable. The perceived need to protect and shelter women from real or imaginary dangers and discomforts has led to the creation of a taboo around women’s mobility, achieved either through women’s own physical means (as in walking and hiking) or through the use of an external agent, be it a horse or a bicycle.

Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Frances E. Willard, in two writings in the 1890s, celebrated and welcomed not just the benefits of cycling mobility, but a new era for those women, who were ready to face and fight a multi-secular baggage of perceptions against female travels and mobility. Susan B. Anthony, in an interview with Nellie Bly in 1896, clearly expressed her views that the bicycle and cycling could mean for women a new era of freedom and new opportunities. Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Frances E. Willard experienced almost opposite upbringings and life styles, but they had a passion in common: the belief that bicycling would greatly benefit everybody and especially women.  Susan B. Anthony probably never rode a bicycle herself, but her forward thinking about women’s role in society made her realize the enormous beneficial consequences that such an activity would have for women.

In their very different ways these three women wished to inspire those women, young and old, who felt restless in the traditional homebound mould of womanhood as prescribed by nineteenth-century century societies to have new experiences. For Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Frances E. Willard, as for many other middle and upper class women who cycled for recreational or professional purposes, the bicycle became a physical and psychological vehicle that carried them toward unprecedented freedom. They believed that once she learned and conquered the bicycle, the new woman of the late nineteenth century could also envision and conquer new worlds, as the citations above suggest.

Elizabeth Robins was born in 1855 in Philadelphia and as a young child was sent, with her younger sister, to a Catholic convent outside of Philadelphia by her widowed father. There she learned every necessary “spiritual grace,” while at her grandmother’s house, where she spent some of her school holidays, she learned those “virtues” that would help her become a proper Philadelphian housewife. This was done by “cultivating the calm of manner expected of her [the young Philadelphia girl] where she, in her turn, would have just such a red brick house and just a delectable back-yard of her own” (Robins Pennell 1914, 47). Although Robins Pennell recognizes the stiffness and the hypocrisy of many aspects of Philadelphian life, she unequivocally defines herself as “one of those old-fashioned Americans” with a deep and strong affection for Philadelphia, its beauty, its character and its history (Preface to Our Philadelphia). Young Elizabeth Robins excelled in academic work at a time when “it was unfeminine, if not unladylike, to be learned” (Robins Pennell 1914, 94) While never openly belonging to any pro-feminist movement or rebelling against the mores of her time and class, Robins Pennell was quite aware of the secondary role that women played in her culture and the expectations that society had for women. She thus comments in her memoirs, Our Philadelphia: “If you had asked any girl anywhere what was woman’s mission, she would have answered promptly – had she been truthful – ‘to find a husband as soon as possible;’ a convent girl would have added ‘or else to become a nun”(98). Young Elizabeth Robins showed a stubborn reluctance at pursuing either of these two paths when family and society believed she should and, after graduating from the convent school, lived for two years in total physical and intellectual paralysis, uncertain of her destiny. This apathy was enhanced by the shock of finding out that her feeling of self-importance, highlighted by her academic successes at the convent, was inadequate vis-à-vis the indifference that her native city showed her and that the role that family and society expected her to play as an adult was purely a domestic one.
Annie Londonderry, another 19th century cyclist.

Only by “straying from the Philadelphia beaten track,” as she admits in her memoirs, was she finally able to “relieve the dullness” of her life (126). This happened when she met Joseph Pennell, a brilliant illustrator who belonged to an established Quaker Philadelphian family. They married and began a totally un- Philadelphian life, moving to London, where they lived for 25 years, and spending many summers riding either a tandem or bicycles in England and especially on the continent. Elizabeth thus found personal fulfillment and professional reward, as she wrote not only accounts of their travels that Joseph illustrated, but also editorial columns for art and popular magazines and the biographies of men she loved and admired, such as the painter Whistler, her uncle and her husband.

In 1890 Elizabeth Robins Pennell published a brief article titled “Cycling” in the July issue of St. Nicholas, a New York illustrated magazine for young readers. In this essay she methodically expounds the virtues of cycling, that she compares favorably with other sports. She mentions the pleasure of leaving behind the bustling city on a bicycle and riding through the peaceful countryside; she highlights the health benefits of “breathing pure, sweet air;” she praises the ready accessibility of such exercise, which needs only the existence of roads, and she celebrates the thoroughness and joys of sightseeing from a cycle, as compared to other means of transportation (733).

Robins Pennell provides glimpses of what one cannot see from a train and the pleasure she had just experienced riding her ‘wheel’ through the Italian countryside. In fact she and her husband had completed a few years before, in 1884, a cycling tour of rural central Italy. They were probably among the first tourists to go on a tricycle tandem “from fair Florence to the Eternal City of Rome,” as they subtitled their narration of this trip in their Two Pilgrims’ Progress. Elizabeth Robins recounts a personal anecdote from her Italian trip to exemplify her advice to would be cyclists to care for their wheels, “as if it were a horse or a dog.” She writes that she and her husband made a special trip from Rome to Naples to have a last look at the tricycle that “had carried us so well and so far” and which they had reluctantly sold to an English clergyman living in Naples (739). Later, in the 1890s, Elizabeth and Joseph would continue their touring and exploration of various parts of France and Eastern Europe, either on a tandem tricycle or a bicycle. They left us a record of their adventures in several books that Elizabeth wrote and Joseph illustrated.

TO BE CONTINUED! Check  our part 2 for the conclusion of “In Praise of Bicycling and Women”.

Bly, Nellie. “Champion of her Sex: Susan B. Anthony.” The World. (February 2, 1896):10.

“Ladies’ Cycling Costumes.” 1979. The Wheelmen 15:2-10.

Leed, Eric. 1991. The Mind of the Traveler. From Gilgamesh to Global Tourism. U.S.: Basis Books.

Robins Pennell, Elizabeth. 1890. Cycling. St. Nicholas XVII (July 1890):732-40

. . . 1914. Our Philadelphia. Described by Elizabeth Robins Pennell and illustrated with one hundred and five Lithographs by Joseph Pennell. Philadelphia and London: Lippincott.

. . . . 2000. The Delights of Delicate Eating. Introduction by Jacqueline Black Williams. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Sims, Sally. 1991. The Bicycle, the Bloomer and Dress Reform in the 1890. In Dress and Popular Culture. Ed. Patricia A. Cunningham and Susan Vaso Lab. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press: 125-45.

Tinker, Edward Laroque. 1951. The Pennells. New York.

Willard, Francis. 1991. How I learned to Ride the bicycle. Introduction by Edith Mayo. Ed. Carol O’Hare. Sunnyvale, California: Fair Oaks.