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Women On Wheels: How Bicycles Paved A Road To Social Change

Sepia-tone black and white photo of Ladies Cycle Club of Hartford, on hill near Soldiers and Sailors Arch, 1890.
Connecticut Historical Society
Ladies Cycle Club of Hartford, on hill near Soldiers and Sailors Arch, 1890.

Bicycles helped inspire modern cars, paved roads...even airplanes! But did you know they were also an inspiration for the women's movement?

This hour we take a look back in time at the origins of the bicycle, including innovation that happened right here in Connecticut. We find out the history of how this vehicle spurred social change and helped empower women to break through gender barriers a little more than a century ago.

We hear from the Connecticut Historical Society about how women in our state embraced their newfound freedom on wheels around the turn of the century.

We also take a look at the bicycle’s role in social mobility today. We hear from Hartford-based bike shop BiCi Co. about why they see bicycles as being an important tool to empower residents in Connecticut’s capital city.

Has riding a bike enabled you to get to work or travel to new parts of your community?


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The Atlantic: How Cycling Clothing Opened Doors for Women (April 2018) – “As is traditional with things that allow women greater freedom, both women’s cycling and women’s cycling pants have occasioned plenty of moral panic. During the 1890s, when bicycling exploded in popularity among the middle and upper classes in the United Kingdom, journalists and others condemned female cyclists for their wantonness. Women on bicycles were pelted with objects and obscenities. These unchaperoned women, some people worried, could be pedaling away to engage in prostitution or lesbianism.”

ConnecticutHistory.orgA Revolution On Two Wheels: Columbia Bicycles – “By the 1890s the firm manufactured a line of “safety bicycles” which featured wheels of equal size. Not only were these bicycles more affordable and easier to ride, but with simple design modifications like the “drop frame” and skirt guards on chain and rear wheels, they could be used by women. Almost overnight the market for bicycles was doubled. Before long the bicycle came to symbolize much more than affordable transportation as women suddenly discovered an opportunity for a new measure of personal freedom and independence.”

BiCi CoWhen Having a Bike Means Having a Job – “65% of working Hartford residents had jobs in our suburbs. If their car breaks down (a constant threat with older used cars) or a family emergency results in a late tax payment or unpaid car registration, that can mean a lost job. One of the most reliable ways to keep a person on a minimum wage salary poor, is to make it necessary for them to own, fuel, and maintain a car. Bicycles can provide that first mile / last mile connectivity via transit that someone in an entry level job needs to get a job.”

Chion Wolf contributed to this show, which originally aired on October 2, 2018

Lucy leads Connecticut Public's strategies to deeply connect and build collaborations with community-focused organizations across the state.
Carmen Baskauf was a producer for Connecticut Public Radio's news-talk show Where We Live, hosted by Lucy Nalpathanchil from 2017-2021. She has also contributed to The Colin McEnroe Show.

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