Straitlaced: Restrictions on Women

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II-85442 II-44445 I-66067.1 M934.2.6 MP-1976.9.30 MP-1984.44.1.2 M930.50.5.136 I-48408.1 MP-1975.67.10
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Florence B. Walker, her "wheel" & packs, ON(?), 1895
Andrew Ross McMaster
1895, 19th century
Silver salts on paper mounted on card - Gelatin silver process
8 x 8 cm
Gift of Mrs. Helen McMaster Paulin
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  bicycle (3) , bicycling (4) , female (135) , figure (1849) , Mrs. Andrew Ross McMaster (1) , Occupation (1110) , pair (195) , Photograph (77678) , road (36) , sport (475) , sport (107) , summer (64) , transportation (338)
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Keys to History

Canadian medical doctors were quick to respond to the bicycle fad of the 1890s, and issued dire warnings against female cycling. Riding a "wheel" would render women infertile, cause orgasms and bring about "bicycle face," a condition described as permanent facial disfigurement caused by the strain of learning to ride.

Bicycle manufacturers accommodated contemporary standards of feminine decency by producing a bicycle frame just for women; its crossbar dipped down to accommodate a skirt. Strangely, women's bikes are still produced to this day, even though very few riders actually wear skirts.

It is not entirely clear just how popular cycling was in the late 19th century, but debates about female riders paint a vivid picture of social anxiety about women's increasing independence. For those who could afford one, a bicycle was more than just a way of getting around and getting exercise. It signalled a refusal to live under the restrictive rules of the Victorian era and a willingness to embrace modernity.

  • What

    This informal portrait was taken by Andrew Ross McMaster, probably an amateur photographer.

  • Where

    The photo was likely taken somewhere in Ontario.

  • When

    This picture was shot in 1895, at the height of the bicycle craze.

  • Who

    Florence B. Walker poses with her "wheel," the popular nickname for bicycles at this time.