One for the Road

July 2006

It was a summer day in Denver, June 1894, and Dora Rinehart would almost certainly rather have been riding her bike. Instead, the diminutive Denver local, who would soon earn the title of “America’s Greatest Cyclienne,” found herself on the front lines of American feminism. “Just to give you an idea of the benefits of a divided skirt,” she was telling a group of skeptical physicians, “it is almost impossible for a lady to ride any distance…with the ordinary skirt. You get too much of the dress on the one side of the wheel, and you do not get enough of the dress on the other side.”

The occasion was the 24th Annual Convention of the Colorado State Medical Society, an esteemed, predominantly male body of medics who practiced in a state celebrated for its ability to cure much of what was ailing America, which in the late 1800s was mostly tuberculosis and scarlet fever. On the agenda that day were presentations titled, “The New Movement in Dress Reform” and “Bicycle Exercise for Women,” two topics that were hardly unrelated. Like thousands of women across the country, Rinehart had recently discovered the remarkable pleasures of pedaling two wheels across great distances, and like most of those women she found the “ordinary skirt” somewhat inimical to her new pastime. As one of her peers put it: “It is an unpleasant experience to be hurled onto the stone…and find that one’s skirt has been so tightly wound round the pedal that one cannot get up enough to unwind it.” Rinehart hoped the doctors might be of service. The doctors were unconvinced.

Only a fool, of course, could deny that riding a bicycle in a full-length skirt was downright deadly. However, the question as they saw it wasn’t so much what women should be allowed to wear while riding, but whether women should be allowed to ride at all. The week before the conference, a Dr. Stoddard, a prominent local physician who considered himself somewhat progressive, having recently decided, as he put it, “that women should have the privilege of exercising the franchise, if she so desired,” had placed a bicycle in his office to conduct his own investigation into this new machine. One can imagine the roll of Dora Rinehart’s eyes as Stoddard reported his findings to his fellow medics: “I placed a patient on it in the position of a rider. I made an examination of the parts pressed on by this narrow strip of leather called a saddle…. Although the time has not been great enough for us to be certain of results, still we may expect a great many rectal and vaginal troubles in consequence.”