It's probably not the girl-power golden bullet you were expecting. When the topic of feminism, suffrage, and female empowerment comes up, most people don't leap to share enthusiastic historical accounts of women on Huffys.
And yet, branding aside, that's exactly what happened. To quote Susan B. Anthony — who's something of an authority on the subject — "Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world."
First, you've got to understand how difficult getting around was in the 1800s. There were carriages and horses, of course, but they were expensive to maintain in urban areas and thus, not the norm. Trains ran between major cities, but there was no mass transit (the first NYC subway line was build in 1904). And besides the practical constraints, society's expectation was that women didn't need to be out and about on their own, and if they were, they certainly had no need for haste.
Today you can take Uber a few miles down the road to drink wine with your girlfriends and watch Twilight in your PJs; in 1880, you'd first have to get fully dressed in full evening-wear, then hire a pricey AF carriage or ride your horse sidesaddle (assuming it was kept nearby) at a walking pace. And that's assuming you didn't care if the menfolk thought your independent behavior was "uncouth."
The early prototypes for the bicycle didn't help. The old-timey image you're used to seeing with those insanely mismatched wheels was called a "penny farthing," named as such for the popular coins in UK circulation at the time (pennies were big, farthings were small). But its nickname "The Boneshaker" that tells the real story: They were insanely difficult to drive and dangerous to boot. Falling off one of these was called taking a "header" (for predictable reasons).
That said, bicycles didn't really take off in the U.S. until 1885, with the invention of the Rover Safety Bicycle. The design matches that of today: (Roughly) equal size wheels, angular frame, and a reasonable riding height. Americans went absolutely nuts for the invention; just two years later, over 2 million safety bikes were sold in a single calendar year. That was roughly one for every 30 people in the country at the time.
For grown men, this was simply a new, practical toy. Not only was it championed as great enjoyable exercise, but it provided a cheap and fast way to get around. It's impossible to overstate just how crazy Americans went for bicycles in the late 1880s; some things never change, and men's attraction to things that are fast, fun and cheap is eternal.
What no one saw coming, at least at first, was the undeniably monumental impact the invention had on society.
You could argue it started with children. Most kids and teens were kept off the penny farthings for health reasons — hence the clever marketing of a Rover Safety Bicycle. For the first time, children were allowed to blast around on bikes, and just like that, the ability to get around quickly and independently had expanded away from grown men.
In a parallel case, the new design was much more approachable for women. The penny farthings were completely incompatible with women's fashion at the time; huge layered dresses don't play nice with massive spokes and, begging your pardon, having your legs spread above mens' heads.
It's not that the early suffragists would have let clothing alone stop them from doing whatever they please (as we'll soon see), it's just that the early bikes were too impractical and not yet commonplace enough to make an impact. But this new design's popularity and ease of use changed everything.
Dress was still a problem, but now at least it was approachable. You could ride the Safety Bicycle — with difficulty — in the popular styles of the time. But it was neither fun nor easy, which led to a resurgence in bloomers.
Split-legged clothing was an absolute scandal at the time, but biking had become so popular and convenient that the shade being thrown was ignored. Bikes were simply too useful and liberating, and momentum had reached a critical mass. Ladies weren't going to stop riding bikes, no matter what the critics said, and thus a fashion revolution begun. It gave them the impetus to break free from the restrictive and impractical clothing they were expected to wear, and instead granted the opportunity to embrace — God forbid — pants.
To say the men fought back is an understatement. There's a seemingly infinite amount of criticism from the newspapers of the day about this revolution, decrying the change in the status quo. This snippet's fairly indicative of popular sentiment at the time:
There were nonsense bodily concerns as well. Something called "bicycle face" was widely cited as a concern for women; it was said that the stress of riding would cause women to permanently ruin their countenances. There was also worry amongst people with penises that women on bikes would lead to a "sexual awakening" due to seat vibrations. Seriously.
Speaking of men being unable to pull their heads out of the gutter, a famous example of bike/sex culture gone haywire is an 1897 article by W.J. Lampton, The Evidence of the Bicycle from the Shores of the Atlantic to Those of the Pacific—a Trail of Wondrous and Varied Beauty. It's hard to see exactly what Lampton was trying to accomplish with this piece, but the result is egregiously verbose fetishizing of biking women's calves and ankles based on geography. For instance, he claims the lady bicyclists of New York have "inimitable stylishness...which cannot be found in any other limbscape on the continent." The article was complete with around a dozen illustrations of each city's female lower legs to match the praise and/or criticism:
All this isn't to say 100 percent of the day's pundits were against the revolution. Maybe the most prescient quote of the time came from a Pennsylvania newspaper in 1885: "The woman on the wheel is altogether a novelty, and is essentially a product of the last decade of the century... she is riding to greater freedom, to a nearer equality with man, to the habit of taking care of herself, and to new views on the subject of clothes philosophy."
The best single personification of that sentiment was Annie Londonderry. Legend has it that in 1894, 24-year-old Annie caught wind of a $10,000 wager between two rich gentleman that no woman could ever ride a bicycle around the world — so Londonderry went and did just that, despite never having ridden a bike in her life. Over the course of 15 months she rode through the US, France, Singapore and more, bolstered by a massive wave of publicity she did nothing to discourage.
Now, if you dig a little, it turns out Annie rode steam freighters around the world for most of her time away from her husband and children at home, and there wasn't actually any bet. And she was by all accounts a below-average bicyclist — but the moxie she showed deservedly turned her into an icon for empowerment at the time.
The Woman's Suffrage movement had been underway long before the bike came along, and it took another 35 years after its invention for women to get the right to vote — but the bike's adoption sped things along in an unprecedented manner. To complete that Susan B. Anthony quote from earlier, "...[bicycling] 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, untrammeled womanhood.” It wasn't just that bikes evolved the way women dressed and traveled; it was the intangibles that came along with those evolutions.
And the "noiseless steed," as it was known back in the day, is still having an impact all over the world today. That wine-and-Twilight example from earlier is still just as out of reach for some women in third-world countries as it was for Americans in the 19th century. In some regions, bikes are the only practical way women have to travel alone to work, safe from harassment on public transport or bad neighborhoods. Just last year, Rihanna funded a fleet of bicycles to help young girls get to school in Malawi.
Bicycles. 200-years old and still changing the world for the better.