Dr Emily Munro, National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive
The bicycle is seeing a resurgence in popularity. Partly due to concerns around sustainable, carbon-neutral transport, and accelerated by the COVID crisis, more people than ever in Scotland are considering the bike as a key mode of transportation. Local authorities and the government have been making efforts to adapt city and town environments to make this easier but there is still a long way to go before cycling becomes integrated into our transport culture in the same way that it is in Scandinavia and the Netherlands.
Before lockdown, I cycled to work frequently, from the South Side of Glasgow to the Library’s Kelvin Hall premises in the West End. As a woman cyclist, however, I did not always feel welcome or safe on my route. I remember one incident, early on in my experimental commute, where I was shouted at by a man in Lycra as he took a tight corner very quickly towards me on his sleek road bike. In my everyday clothes and moving cautiously on a heavy, upright hire bike, perhaps I was an easy target. I swerved inexpertly to avoid him. The open irritation he showed me challenged the idea I held of a united cycling community.
The first commercially successful bicycle, or velocipede, was designed 200 years ago in Germany and was pedal-free. It was powered by the rider’s walk or run, much like a modern child’s balance bike. It was nicknamed the ‘dandy horse’ after the men who tended to ride them. The invention of the pedal-powered two-wheel bicycle is often credited to Kirkpatrick Macmillan who was born in Dumfries & Galloway. You can see an entertaining reconstruction of Macmillan’s bicycle in the film ‘Achievement’ (1948)
There is a story that Macmillan was fined for speeding on his invention in 1842 and also that his niece, Mary Marchbank, rode the bicycle, becoming the first female cyclist. Mary’s ride on the bicycle is sometimes described as ‘illicit’. Victorian women’s clothing was ill-suited to cycling and the hobby was firmly associated with men. Sitting astride a bicycle was considered unladylike and immodest, even sexually stimulating or damaging; on horseback women were expected to ride side-saddle.
The invention of the chain-driven safety bicycle and its subsequent popularity coincided with the acceleration of the women’s suffrage movement. The late Victorian ladies’ roadster bike had a step through frame to accommodate skirts and bikes were made with skirt guards. You can see why these were needed by watching this film in the British Film Institute archive ‘Ladies on Bicycles’ (1899) – a curious, if charming, piece of footage where women’s cycling is contained and aestheticized (the women in virginal white dresses), becoming more a spectator’s curiosity than a mode of transportation.
In this bicycle advert for Rudge-Whitworth (1902), shown in places where films were screened, you can see an early step through bicycle. The woman in the advert is presented as unrefined, with masculine or childlike traits – and covered in road dust! However, the bicycle came to have both practical and symbolic importance for women’s freedoms in this period. Suffragettes including Alice Hawkins and the Pankhursts are documented to have campaigned with their bicycles, the two-wheeled vehicle giving them the ability to travel longer distances carrying campaign leaflets and banners.
To be a women on a bicycle in this period was daring and subversive. On bicycles women could travel away from home unchaperoned, they could attend political gatherings and meet with friends and lovers in secret. A bicycle was affordable (by middle-class women) in contrast to the motor-car and did not require a license. At the same time, cinema was emerging. Early films were screened at travelling fairgrounds and in variety halls. Concerns over safety and increasing demand for moving pictures by middle-class and female audiences changed the ways in which films were shown. Picture halls emerged and, in the 1920s and 1930s, these could be extravagant-looking and built for comfort. Movies were early on written to attract female audiences and, like bicycling, cinemagoing became for women not only a pleasure-seeking occupation but one they could also enjoy outside the familial sphere.
As society’s priorities shifted, women began to cycle to their workplaces or use their bicycles for work. At the Moving Image Archive we preserve a wonderful, colour documentary filmed by Frank Marshall that celebrates the story of Jean Cameron (‘The Coming of the Camerons’ (1944) ). A postwoman in Glen Clova, Jean had a physically demanding postal route that involved cycling. She wrote to the Post Office in 1944 to ask for trousers rather than the standard issue postal uniform for women which included a skirt. Jean’s request was granted (after some discussion) and trousers, nicknamed ‘Camerons’ in her honour, were introduced.
It is doubtful that British women’s fashions would have accommodated trousers had it not been for the adoption of the bicycle. Skirts became shorter and petticoats fewer, and bloomers were introduced, though not without patriarchal disdain. Some Victorian women altered their clothes so they could switch between clothes acceptable to society and cycle wear.
Even so, change was slow and prejudice and misogyny towards the iconography of the ‘new woman’ persisted. In 1935 a man in England was sentenced to death (later commuted) for deliberately running a car into Phyllis Oakes while she was cycling and killing her. The trial demonstrated he had made several other attacks on women cyclists in a similar manner.
Bearing in mind the anxieties and resentment held towards women on bicycles in the early part of the twentieth century, it can be refreshing to see women in films not only using their bikes for utility but also enjoying them. Other footage of women cyclists in the archive includes women cycling to work at Birrell’s sweet factory (‘Making Sweets’ (1952)) and cycling for leisure. ‘Cycling and caravanning are grand fun’ states the intertitle in the fitness documentary ‘Fitness for Girls’ (1953) . Here a large group of teenage girls travel by bike to a camp site, in thigh-length shorts and skirts, to engage in female-only camaraderie. The closeness of the girls is evident in their playfulness and a shot that shows a small group lounging on the ground, legs overlapping (though we should be aware they are being filmed by a man in the context of a film that would have their physicality and ‘slackness’ disciplined by exercise). In Travelpass (1973) two young women explore the highlands (pursued, unfortunately, by two men). They enjoy the freedom of the new bus Travelpass that takes them as far north as Orkney, where they cycle down the winding streets of Stromness. At first glance, it is a freeing, playful image of pleasure but does it again take us to a place where women’s cycling is aestheticized and made childlike?
It is sobering to learn that women were largely excluded from professional cycle racing until the 1980s. In Scotland, women are also underrepresented in leisure cycling, with 50% fewer women than men cycling once or twice a week. Reasons cited by women for this include fears for their safety, sexual harassment and sexist attitudes by male cyclists and drivers. People of colour and ethnic minorities are also less likely to cycle. There is footage in ‘St Andrew’s by the Northern Sea’ (1974) of female students contentedly, and sociably, cycling around their adopted seaside town with their male counterparts. Eighty years previous to this, at another traditional institution, young men dangled an effigy of a woman on a bike from a building to mock it – they were protesting against the admission of women to Cambridge university.
American social reformer Susan B. Anthony said in 1896 that the bicycle ‘has done more to emancipate woman than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood.’ It is hard not to feel uplifted when watching footage of women on their bicycles, to see them experience the freedom of going somewhere under their own steam. Bicycles are still associated with activism. At Hanoi Pride, bicycles are decorated and ridden in support of LGBTQ rights. The bike has become a symbol of active, sustainable transport for the climate movement.
The cinema frame will always contain its subject, of course, and the camera is usually held by a (white) man. But as an enthusiast of both cinema and the bicycle, I can’t help but draw a positive comparison between the bicycle mechanism and the film camera and projector. Both were made popular in the same era and whirred with the potential to take us places.
 This claim was promoted by a relative of Macmillan, James Johnston, in 1899 but there is some scepticism around whether Johnston found conclusive proof of Macmillan’s invention.
 See Dr Sheila Hanlon’s research blog for more information on this http://www.sheilahanlon.com/
 Kat Jungnickel (2018) Bikes and Bloomers: Victorian Women Inventors & their Extraordinary Cycle Wear. The website http://bikesandbloomers.com/ details a number of patterns invented by women cyclists.
 The film ‘Women Wheelers’ (1929) is refreshing in this regard and shows a little-discussed aspect of women’s sporting history https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-woman-wheelers-1929-online
 Sustrans 2018 ‘Are We Nearly There Yet? Exploring Gender and Active Travel’ https://www.sustrans.org.uk/our-blog/research/all-themes/all/exploring-gender-and-active-travel/
 Kevin Hylton 2017 ‘The Unbearable Whiteness of Cycling’ https://theconversation.com/the-unbearable-whiteness-of-cycling-76256 See also https://peopleforbikes.org/blog/race-ethnicity-class-and-protected-bike-lanes-an-idea-book-for-fairer-cities/ and https://usa.streetsblog.org/2017/04/18/for-people-of-color-barriers-to-biking-go-far-beyond-infrastructure-study-shows/