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Lesbians and Cycling: an Illustrated History

Last month I ran a posting featuring the group photograph below. I suggested that one of the men pictured looked rather feminine and, perhaps, was a woman impersonating a man.

A 19th Century woman muscling in on a man’s world by wearing a fake moustache*? Sounds far-fetched but then I stumbled upon this 1890 picture of a woman photographed next to a highwheeler. The woman sports a fake ‘tache and is dressed as a man.

The woman is Frances Benjamin Johnston of Washington, D.C. She was a professional photographer and this photo is classed as a self-portrait. Her extended foot is probably pressing a remote switch, taking the shot.

The Washington Times, of April 21st 1895, said:

“Miss Frances Benjamin Johnston is the only lady in the business of photography in the city, and in her skillful hands it has become an art that rivals the geniuses of the old world.”

Miss Johnston took photographic portraits of presidents (she was the official White House photographer for a time) and socialites. She also photographed leading womens’ rights advocate Susan B Anthony.

Famously, in 1896, Ms Anthony told the New York World’s Nellie Bly:

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. 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, untrammelled womanhood.”

An 1891 article in Outing asked “where shall [women] ride?”:

“The smiling countryside holds out arms of welcome to her, the shaded grassy road, the smooth steep incline, the bumping corduroy by-ways, the canal towpaths, the lakeside drives and the stubborn stiff hill to be climbed.”

Women on bicycles broadened their horizons beyond the neighbourhoods in which they lived. Cycle historian Jim McGurn has said that in the Edwardian era cycling extended people’s geographical reach (better roads would help in this respect), enabling couplings from outside a confined area. Cycling helped expand the gene pool, he posited. But cycling was also a vehicle, as it were, for couplings that wouldn’t result in offspring. Same-sex relationships have a long history and cycling had its part to play.

Johnston was a lesbian, openly living with her partner, Mattie Edwards Hewitt (also a photographer), and was one of the key members of the feminist New Woman movement.

The “New Woman” embraced the bicycle as a means of emancipation. On a bicycle, a woman was equal to a man.

On their “wheels” – the 19th Century American term for bicycles – women discovered freedom of movement, helped in part by the new, less restrictive clothing popularised by the New Woman movement: bloomers.

By dressing as a man in her 1890 self-portrait, Johnston was being deliberately provocative, challenging the status quo. The use of an Ordinary as a prop is telling. These were difficult to ride, even for athletic men, and the late 1890s bicycle craze came about because of the increase in popularity of Safety bicycles. By 1890, Ordinaries were being ridden less and less but were still equated with male athleticism. This particular Ordinary doesn’t look too big for Johnston and is very likely to be her machine but by 1890 she also, presumably, had a Safety bicycle.

Many of her ‘New Women’ contemporaries rode bicycles. The poster above was in her studio. It’s by Charles Dana Gibson from the June 1895 issue of Scribner’s magazine and shows a ‘New Woman’ awheel, wearing a blouse with voluminous leg-of-mutton sleeves tucked into the waist of her bloomers.

Not all of the female cyclists of the 1890s were lesbians, far from it. But the worlds of feminism and lesbianism were linked (as were the worlds of photography and bicycling), and cycling couldn’t help but be part and parcel of the scene. One of the key women’s cycling instruction manuals of the age was Bicycling for Ladies by Maria Ward.

In the preface to her 1896 book, Ward wrote:

“I have found that in bicycling, as in other sports essayed by them, women and girls bring upon themselves censure from many sources. I have also found that this censure, though almost invariably deserved, is called forth not so much by what they do as the way they do it.”

There were copious photographs in Bicycling for Ladies, many of them of gymnast Daisy Elliot, who demonstrated cycling techniques such as how to mount, dismount, and carry a bicycle. The photos of Elliot were taken by Alice Austen, a friend of Ward’s, and a key figure in lesbian history. Ward photographed “the larky life” of the gay nineties (no, not yet that kind of gay), such as her friends playing tennis, or bicycling. And as her friends were mostly lady friends (“she lived an unconventional lifestyle [and] was never to marry”, says the video at Austen’s home on Staten Island, now a National Historic Landmark) she took photographs of them cycling. But, in many of these photographs, the women dress as men. Either Austen got the idea from Johnston, or Johnston got the idea from Austen. Either way, in the 1890s, the bicycle was a revolutionary thing, transforming in so many ways.






NB Cross dressing wasn’t common in Victorian times but it happened, in America as well as Britain, as demonstrated by this key-word search on

“At Liverpool a woman who has for nine years disguised her sex, dressing in male attire, and earning a living as a cabdriver, is now in custody for having stolen some butcher’s meat.” The Graphic, February 1875

* Access to high-quality real-hair goatees, moustaches and full beards was easy in the 1890s. The Sears Roebuck & Co catalogue of 1897 even sold mutton-chop whiskers, and for just 75 cents.

Wigs, goatees, beards and mustaches: Sears Roebuck, 1897

8 thoughts on “Lesbians and Cycling: an Illustrated History

  1. Beth Anderson / Reply January 6, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    Really fabulous post! I’m really interested in the link between equal rights and cycling and wonder if there really would have been such a move from very restrictive female clothing of the time to much more comfortable clothing if it wasn’t for bicycles! Ladies would often faint, perpetuating the myth that women were rather delicate creatures, often due to clothing that would restrict breathing and constrict internal organs. In fact women were also required to wear corsets while pregnant; something which today sounds shocking.

    The choice for women of the day was to either pick comfortable feminine clothing and risk being thought of as immoral, or adopt male clothing and pass as male – it’s probably no wonder than women often did this!

    Thanks for posting this though, a very beautiful photograph and a lady I knew nothing about before reading this!

    • carltonreid / Reply January 6, 2012 at 1:38 pm

      Thanks, Beth

      There have been some great recent books on cycling and the emancipation of women. My book won’t cover the exact same ground but there is clearly some overlap.
      Your point about ‘delicate creatures’ is spot-on. I was looking through the Sears Roebuck catalogue of 1897 earlier: there’s a great selection of patent medicines, including ‘Female Pills for Weak Women’.

      • Beth Anderson / Reply January 6, 2012 at 2:30 pm

        Absolutely! There was also a wine that was to ‘correct derangements during menses’, goodness knows what was in it!

        • Samantha Smith / Reply January 7, 2012 at 5:29 pm

          While I thoroughly disapprove of anything suggesting we become deranged during periods (a bit grumpy, maybe), I can’t help hoping the special ingredient in that tonic wine was theobromine (good chocolate to the uninitiated).

          The Museum of Brands in London has a section on women’s emancipiation, which it ties in very closely with the changing fashions of the time – and women choosing to gad about on bicycles. Hobble skirts were quite the vogue in some quarters at about the same time as wheels and votes for women became a big deal. The first time the skirts caught on was the 1880s, just before the Safety appeared. Is it a surprise ladies’ skirts became more voluminous again? They reappeared in the 1910s, just as the British suffrage movement really started to gain ground.

          Can’t help thinking there’s something to the reappearance of body-con fashions and ridiculous heels, and that there’ll be a similar reaction to them as in the past, in the very near future – preferably lead by women on comfortable bicycles.

          • carltonreid / January 7, 2012 at 6:46 pm

            The patent medicines sometimes had powerful ingredients such as arsenic and opium. And didn’t Coca Cola and the other drugstore drinks originally have genuine cocaine?
            Today’s cycle chic movement likes heels.

  2. Lucyis / Reply April 3, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    It’s an interesting read, but as a female lesbian cyclist, I’m not really seeing any correlation between female cycling and sexual orientation.

  3. Bikebits / Reply May 16, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    Wasn’t there a famous late 19thC woman known as the ‘Brighton Female Scorcher’ who dressed in a masculine fashion? A real pioneer!

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