Provided by the Question Mark Collective as part of a forthcoming anthology on Australian Troublemakers to be published by Melbourne based Scam Publications.
When the bicycling craze hit Australia it hit in a big way. During the 1890s cycle races were one of the hottest forms of entertainment on offer drawing crowds of many thousands. For the pedestrian cycling was an exciting new option for transport. It was also one of the most enduring for ordinary Australians until falling automobile prices saw them switch over in the 1940s and 1950s. Today its popularity as a non polluting alternative is growing.
Women embraced cycling as another area in which they could prove their equality with men. Denied the vote and the right to property they could at least demand the right to pedal about as they pleased. This right was challenged by conservative men in the medical industry as well as by conservative larrikins in the street. The pages of The Champion saw a debate break out in 1890 between those who saw cycling as "injurious to the fragile female form" and those who scoffed at such wacky medical ideas. The following letter is just one of a number which aired the right of women to choose what to do with their bodies and their leisure time. It demonstrates that not only were women themselves active in the fight for cyclists rights, but that the largely middle class cycling scene could have an impact on the dress codes of all women.
I abandoned a skirt and adopted rational dress for greater safety (twice being nearly killed by my skirt catching in the pedals), and not, as the enemies of cycling say of all women who wear rational dress, because of vanity. No woman is expected to ride horseback in a street dress, to play tennis in a tightly fitting visiting costume, or to walk miles in a tea gown. Why cycling should be the only pastime for which women would dress in a thoroughly unsuitable manner (as in skirts) is a mystery. Imagine men playing football in tweed suits and tight shoes, cricket in mackintoshes or rowing a race in evening dress. Men dress suitably for every sport, why not women?
The hope of the Argus, "that those persons (ie-lady cyclists) may find themselves frowned off the road" like many a Cassandra-like prophecy of that well established journal, is doomed to disappointment. Cycling for women is coming to stay. Lady Brassey rides in skirts, but that will not cause the rational dress party, nor any woman with regard to her safety and comfort, to follow her example. Melbourne is singularly behind the times in this matter and it is odd that those persons (principally Australians) who venerate anything and everything British, from boots to the latest handshake, have not yet learnt that the majority of English women cycle (as they do in America) in rational dress.
"A lie has no legs" saith an ancient saw. Perhaps the anti-cycling public thought so of women and are shocked to discover their mistake,