“Perhaps we women should remember the suffragists whenever we wear trousers, ride a bicycle, sign a petition, or participate in a demonstration because these and many other things are now ours to choose as a result of their journey.” – Stephanie Hall1
This sign at the corner of Mynderse and Fall Streets in Seneca Falls, New York, marks the spot of the first woman’s rights convention held in the United States organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on July 19-20, 1848.
Alice, Jackie, Marie, and I stopped here on our way home from the 35th International Women On Wheels® Ride-In™ held in Lake George, New York, July 13-15, 2021.
The Seneca Falls Convention laid the groundwork for changing the future for women, including a woman’s right to vote, but it also had an impact on female fashion.
“Fashions of the time were restrictive and contributed to women being seen as incapable. Voluminous skirts were both pointed to as evidence that women were incompetent and in fact limited what they were able to do.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was interested in dress reform and learned of a new fashion worn by activist Elizabeth Smith Miller: a skirt or dress over loose trousers. She tried the outfit and introduced it to another activist and editor of the progressive magazine, The Lily, Amelia Bloomer in 1851. Bloomer promoted this new form of dress, particularly a version with very full trousers drawn in at the ankle. What was then called the “Bloomer outfit” was extremely controversial and was ridiculed by those who opposed social change.”2
“Stanton, Bloomer, and [Susan B.] Anthony all agreed that they should disassociate the suffrage movement from the Bloomer Outfit controversy so Amelia Bloomer’s bloomers did not catch on in the 1850’s, either as a suffrage garment or as fashion. But the problem of garments that got in the way of working, sports, and even ordinary activities of life continued to be a problem.
This changed with the introduction of the safety bicycle, a bicycle with two wheels of the same size that was easy for women to ride. Women could ride it with skirts, though its introduction did help raise hemlines. But garments for riding the bicycle: split skirts and full trousers gathered in below the knee started appearing in the 1880s and became the rage by the 1890s. The trousers were often called bloomers, although they had little resemblance to Amelia Bloomer’s costume of the 1850s.
There were, of course, grave concerns about women mounting bicycles and freely going off on their own, showing the shape of their legs as they did so. Women cycled on undaunted. When it came to greater freedom of dress and movement, the coming of the safety bicycle helped to bring an era of change that was unstoppable.”3
Or did it?
Bessie Stringfield was the first African-American woman to ride solo across the United States, making eight long-distance rides covering the lower 48 states at a time when women were not supposed to wear pants or ride a motorcycle. During World War II, Bessie worked as a civilian motorcycle dispatch rider. Despite completing intensive training and being the only female in her army unit, Bessie encountered prejudice on the road.
Dot Robinson also set an example in a time when motorcycling wasn’t considered proper for a woman. Dot worked as a motorcycle courier during WWII and assisted in the creation of the Motor Maids. Dot earned many motorcycle endurance race trophies, but she had to fight to compete. Attempts were made to prevent her from participating in the sport she loved, but she persevered and was allowed to compete, making it possible for other women to race.
In 1916, sisters Augusta and Adeline Van Buren rode coast to coast and were the first women to ride motorized vehicles to the summit of Pikes Peak. They wanted to convince the military that women were able to serve as dispatch riders. Although they did not achieve that goal, they proved that women were capable of far more than society was willing to accept.
“At the time, in many towns, especially in rural America, women wearing pants was a serious violation of the social order. Gussie and Addie were just out of Chicago, barreling west through the ring of small townships that radiated from the city through central Illinois, when they were pulled over by police for their scandalous dress and cited for wearing men’s clothing. This pattern was repeated several times as the sisters roared into towns unaccustomed to women on motorcycles, especially women unaccompanied by men, and definitely not accustomed to women on motorcycles, without men, wearing pants. Still, they persisted.”4
We, that ride, should always remember to honor those that paved the way for us to wear whatever we desire no matter where our journeys take us.
1, 2,3Hall, Stephanie. “Symbolism in the Women’s Suffrage Movement”. August 24, 2020. https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2020/08/symbolism-in-the-womens-suffrage-movement/