Subscribe

Petaluma women and their ‘Steeds of Steel’

WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH

National Women's History Month, celebrating and highlighting the contributions of women in local, national and world history, sprung from Women’s History Day , which was declared in Sonoma County in 1978. Now celebrated during the month of March in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, the earliest efforts to declare a day for women’s history (then, in 1980, a week, then, in 1987, a month) were carried out by Sonoma County’s National Women's History Alliance. The National Women’s History theme for 2022 is “Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope.”

On July 4, 1896, Petaluma found itself being touted as the new “bicycling Mecca” of the West Coast, as a reported 6,000 people turned out for the annual divisional meet of the League of American Wheelmen at the city’s new Wheelman Park.

Among the 18 cycling teams from around Northern California that had gathered to compete were two teams comprised entirely of women — San Francisco’s Alpha Cycling Club and Petaluma’s own “women of the wheel,” the Mercury Cyclists.

Their presence exemplified the greatest social disruption spawned by the 1890’s bicycling craze: Women were no longer dependent upon men for their transportation.

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling,” Susan B. Anthony told New York World reporter Nellie Bly in 1896. “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel ... the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

Female liberation was one of the unexpected outcomes of the new “safety bicycle” introduced in the early 1890s, and called the “freedom machine” by suffragists. Its predecessor, the high-wheel bicycle, had been strictly a masculine pursuit. Nicknamed the “boneshaker,” its enormous front wheel and small back wheel were made of rubber-lined wood, making it a dangerous ride on bumpy roads.

The safety, with its two equal-sized wheels and inflated rubber tires, not only provided a smoother ride but was easier to mount, making cycling accessible to everyone, including a woman in a dress.

Petaluma’s first safety bicycles went on sale the fall of 1892 at Joe Steiger’s Gunsmith Shop on Main Street, across from current day Putnam Plaza. The following year, a group of young men led by Frank Lippitt formed the Petaluma Wheelmen, a local chapter of the League of American Wheelmen.

By 1894, with the national bicycle craze in full swing, new dealerships started popping up around town. Lyman Byce, the entrepreneur behind Petaluma’s booming new egg industry, opened one at his Petaluma Incubator Company across from today’s Penry Park. The bikes weren’t cheap. Byce’s popular Erie model sold for $100 ($3,150 in today’s currency).

Primarily in demand among Petaluma’s younger, middle-class set, the bicycle also found some early adopters among older residents, including the city’s leading capitalist, 63-year old John McNear. After selling McNear a bicycle, Byce convinced him to build a local velodrome for racing events, assuring him he would make his money back within a year. McNear owned an old baseball stadium on the city’s east side (now the site of the Petaluma Public Library), which he agreed to refashion into Wheelman Park.

Constructing a quarter-mile race track with six-foot-high banked curves, he surfaced it with hard-packed decomposed granite, making it conducive to speed. He then doubled the seating capacity of the baseball bleachers to accommodate 2,500, leaving ample room for standing spectators as well as those who wished to watch from their parked carriages. Public transportation to the track was provided by the Petaluma Street Railway, a horse-drawn trolley running across town, whose east side terminus was next to the park.

Shortly before the track was completed, a group of young women led by Gertrude Hopkins and Florence Mauzy formed the Mercury Cyclists, joining a growing number of women’s cycling clubs starting up around the country.

“The bicycle,” wrote the League of American Wheelmen, “has taken those old-fashioned, slow-going notions of the gentler sex, and replaced them with a new woman, mounted on her steed of steel.”

But as the Mercury Cyclists and other wheelwomen took to their steel steeds, they ran into cultural speed bumps erected by conservative Victorians, who wanted to know where they were riding to.

When American Wheelman magazine put the question to women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she succinctly replied, “To suffrage.”

Victorians believed otherwise.

For them, women were stationary, and men mobile. Any female intrusion into the outdoor world of travel, athleticism or free movement threatened their world order. For them, the only place women were riding to was heavenly disgrace and eternal destruction.

“As a chivalrous gentleman,” a newspaper article asked Victorian men, “do you tremble at the revolution of bicycling women?”

The answer was complicated, especially for men grappling with conflicted feelings of repulsion and attraction. A man’s poem in the San Francisco Examiner in 1895 conveyed their dilemma.

WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH

National Women's History Month, celebrating and highlighting the contributions of women in local, national and world history, sprung from Women’s History Day , which was declared in Sonoma County in 1978. Now celebrated during the month of March in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, the earliest efforts to declare a day for women’s history (then, in 1980, a week, then, in 1987, a month) were carried out by Sonoma County’s National Women's History Alliance. The National Women’s History theme for 2022 is “Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope.”

“The Bicycle Girl, oh, the Bicycle Girl/ with a spinnaker skirt and a sleeve like a furl/ such a freak on the wheel, such a sight on the tire/ I am certain I never will love or admire.”

Then, after this dismissive opening, the poet took an unexpected swoon.

“The sound of her bell and the hum of her wheel / Is enough to make any man’s cranium reel/ And why did she smile as she lightly spun by?/ The Bicycle Girl, oh, the Bicycle Girl/ she has tangled my heart in her mystical whirl.”

As courtship outings to dances and musical concerts began to be usurped by moonlight bike rides in the countryside, some men turned to the bicycle as a revealing test of character.

“The woman you see is seldom the woman you think you see,” wrote a man in the Petaluma Courier in 1896. “Mounted upon bicycles, most women have to tell the truth about themselves. One can distinguished at a glance the daring, willful beauty from the timid, tender girl. A woman’s health, vigor of mind and body are apparent. I will even go so far as to advise a man not to get married until he has seen the object of his choice disport herself upon a bicycle.”

Victorians definitely disagreed.

The only character trait they believed revealed in a woman on a bike was a proclivity for sin and fast living. Out cycling without male supervision, a woman was not only placing herself in danger, she exposed herself to the temptations of sexual stimulation, which Victorian doctors claimed was created by the protruding pommel of bicycle saddles.

The fear of unleashed female sexuality led bicycle manufacturers to introduce special “hygienic” saddles with little or no pommels, along with high seat stems and upright handlebars that supported a more dignified and ladylike riding position than the bent over, “camel back” style, requiring women to provocatively lean forward in the saddle.

But the break with tradition most disturbing to Victorians was fashion. At a time when middle-class women rarely challenged fashion’s dictates, the practicality of bicycling offered them an opportunity to rethink their clothing.

Shedding the restrictive Victorian corsets and large, billowy dresses, women wheelers adopted the “divided skirt,” or baggy trouser cinched at the knee, as their riding attire. Originally championed as part of a dress reform movement by suffragist Amelia Bloomer, the divided skirts were commonly known, for obvious reasons, as “bloomers.” Their appeal rapidly spread in the 1890s beyond the practicalities of bicycling to women who didn’t ride. When asked about bloomers in her interview with Nellie Bly, Susan B. Anthony was blunt.

“Dress to suit the occasion,” she said. “A woman doesn’t want skirts and flimsy lace to catch in the wheel. Safety, as well as modesty, demands bloomers or extremely short skirts. You know women only wear foolish articles of dress to please men’s eyes anyway.”

In the case of bloomers, the male gaze gladly overlooked practical modesty, as the trousers scandalously exposed a woman’s ankles, raising another Victorian outcry.

The hotly contested fashion battle that ensued forever altered public perceptions of female athleticism and proper female behavior. Bloomers permitted women cyclists to jettison the heavy, drop-frame bicycles designed for riding in a dress, and jump aboard the much lighter, diamond-framed bicycles used by men, making them more viable competitors in races like Petaluma’s Independence Day meet.

Disappointingly, no records were broken that 1896 day at Petaluma’s new Wheelman Park — by men or women cyclists. Likewise, while new bicycle technology proved liberating for women, it failed to place them on the fast track to suffrage. Their right to vote wasn’t secured in California until 1911, and not on a national scale until 1920.

Bicycling mania itself proved to be short-lived, dying off before the turn of the century, as production improvements dramatically lowered bike prices and the novelty among the younger middle class wore off.

In 1903, Joe Steiger’s Gunsmith Shop made the first sale of an automobile in Petaluma, after which the moral panic over women finding liberation on a bicycle shifted to women finding liberation behind the wheel of a car.

A popular joke from the time captured the challenge women faced.

Jack and Jill have just climbed a steep hill on their tandem bicycle, with Jill riding in front. “Phew, that was a tough climb,” Jill said, leaning over, breathing hard. “The climb was so hard, and we were going so slow, I thought we were never going to make it.”

“Yeah,” said Jack, “good thing I kept the brakes on — or we would have slid all the way back down!”

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette