Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

12 October 2018

Will Miji, Sue, Connie and Rebecca Become A "Forgotten" Generation?

A few weeks ago, much was made of Serena Williams calling an umpire a "liar" and "thief".  Not long before that, tennis officials made a fuss over the outfit she wore, saying that it was "unbecoming" of the "traditions" of the "ladies" in the sport--or words to that effect.

While it's unfortunate that Serena has to take such criticism for, essentially, being a woman with a competitive spirit (and black), her experiences are nothing new.  In fact, if you subtract the race factor and change sports, you have an idea of what another group of female athletes faced at the end of the 19th Century.

The opening lineup of a race in Chicago, 2 March 1896.


Those accounts form part of Roger Gilles' new book, Women on the Move:  The Forgotten Era of Women's Bicycle RacingLike Serena and other athletes who come from backgrounds different from others in their sport, women who raced during the 1890s had to buck social norms--in their case, the ones of the Victorian Era.  

Some of those conventions were sartorial.  Women were still expected to wear hoopskirts; though "bloomers" had been invented, women were still castigated, or worse, for wearing them.  

What that meant,as Gilles points out, is that the first, now-forgotten heyday of women's racing didn't start until the 1890s--decades after men started riding bicycles--because it couldn't have begun any earlier.  The "safety" bicycle--with two wheels of more or less equal size--didn't make its appearance until the late 1880s.  Before that, cyclists rode "penny farthings" with high front wheels.  I haven't tried, but I imagine it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to mount--let alone ride--such a machine when one is upholstered as women of that time were expected to be.

Although (sometimes self-appointed) moral arbiters of the time denounced women when they decided to "dress like men"--i.e., wear bloomers or shorter skirts--it had the not-so-surprising effect of attracting male spectators to the races, which were mostly on the track.  Even if they didn't take the women seriously as cyclists, those men and boys could see females, if not nude, then at least with less clothing than usual.

One result is that, ironically, some female racers were well-paid.  In fact, many were the sole breadwinners of their families (an unheard-of role for Victorian women) and a few even made more money than their male counterparts.

Still, female racers didn't get the same respect as the men.  Press coverage of the time tended to focus less on the competition between women on the bike than off it.  Instead of the races, journalists focused on the "catfights" and too often portrayed them as petty women rather than the competitive athletes they were.

So, while unfavorable coverage may not have been responsible for ending the first "golden age" of women's racing--which Gilles places in 1902--it may have helped to prevent a revival.  During the 1920s and '30's, there was renewed interest in racing--mainly the six-day variety--but I have not been able to find accounts of womens' races from that time.  

At least here in the US, there would not be more "glory days" for women's racing until the 1970s, when a generation of talented riders that included Mary Jane "Miji" Reoch, Sue Novara-Reber, Connie Carpenter-Phinney and Rebecca Twigg burst onto the scene and dominated their field for more than a decade.

After another talented generation of women--including France's Jeanne Longo (road) and American Missy Giove (mountain) led their field during the 1990s, women's racing seems to have slipped into relative obscurity.  If global warming or one of El Cheeto Grande's tweets doesn't wipe all of us out, will some future historian write the equivalent of Gilles' book about the "forgotten" generation of women who raced from the 1970s through the 1990s?


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