In the Victorian Era, Men Warned Independent Women They Would Get ‘Bicycle Face’

By: Beth Moreton | Published: Mar 21, 2024

While women riding a bicycle nowadays is a normal experience, back in the Victorian era, it was something that took a lot of people (mostly men) time to get their heads around.

So much so that in the 1890s, a term was created — “bicycle face” — to try and deter women from riding bicycles.

Victorian Women Had Very Few Rights

With the Suffragette movement either nonexistent or only just starting in some countries, this meant that many women had few rights and weren’t treated equally, according to Weber State University.

An old image of some Victorian women. They are washing clothes. Two women are washing the clothes in barrels and the other woman is hanging the clothes up on a line.

Source: Ross Dunn/Wikimedia Commons

Single women would have the same rights as men, such as buying property and writing a will, but married women were completely controlled by their husbands. 

Bicycling Became a Craze in the 1890s

It’s not entirely known when women first started riding bicycles. However, it is believed there was a bicycle craze in the 1890s that helped women become more independent, according to Kittelson & Associates

Some examples of Victorian bicycles. One is green and on the ground and another is black and hanging on the wall.

Source: Roantrum/Wikimedia Commons

During this time, Victorian women decided to use the craze as an opportunity to assert their dominance in some way, to prove that they were perfectly capable of doing things by themselves.

Doctors Told Women They Would Get 'Bicycle Face'

Afraid that women were starting to become too independent, doctors made up a medical condition called “bicycle face” to try and discourage them from using their bicycles.

Black and white footage of some Victorian women riding bikes. They are riding down a road and there is a crowd on either side of the road watching them. They are wearing long black skirts, white shirts, and hats.

Source: Guy Jones/YouTube

The Literary Digest in 1895 said that a combination of remaining in the upright position while also overexerting themselves in riding the bicycle and trying to stay balanced was what caused bicycle face. 

'Bicycle Face' Caused Unwanted Changes to the Face

According to McKendree University, Victorian men wanted women to display a feminine quality, which may be something bicycles took away from them.

A line of Victorian women riding bicycles. They are riding towards a crowd of people. They are wearing long white dresses and hats.

Source: Guy Jones/YouTube

To potentially make women believe men would be put off by them or that they would lose their beauty and femininity, they were told that they would either appear flushed or pale, with drawn lips and dark circles around their eyes.

There Was No Clarity on What 'Bicycle Face' Looked Like

With most medical conditions, doctors tend to be able to give their patients a clear outline as to what the condition will look like.

A black and white image of a Victorian woman on a bicycle. She is wearing a long dark skirt, jacket, and shirt.

Source: Talks At Google/YouTube

According to Vox, descriptions of the condition varied. Some doctors claimed that once you got bicycle face, you could never get rid of it, whereas others said that it was only temporary (as long as enough time was spent away from a bicycle). 


It Was Unclear What Caused 'Bicycle Face'

All medical conditions tend to have a root cause of some description, but 19th-century doctors didn’t know what caused bicycle face.

A Victorian drawing of a woman riding a bicycle down a road. There are two men on a horse and cart following her.

Source: Talks At Google/YouTube

Some said it was due to women struggling to keep their balance, whereas others said it happened if you rode your bicycle on a Sunday, as this was a day of rest and worship, according to Ely Museum.


Bicycles Helped the Feminism Movement

With feminism still a new term in the Victorian era, what might be surprising is that one object that helped with this movement was bicycles.

An early example of some Victorian bloomers from the 1850s. There is a skirt at the top which stops at the knees and below the knees they look like trousers.

Source: Unknown Author/Wikimedia Commons

Most images of women from the Victorian era depict them wearing long and heavy dresses, but the dress reform, which started with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Bloomer wearing a “bloomer outfit,” according to the Library of Congress Blogs, made it easier for women to ride bicycles. 


Women Riding Bicycles Faced Male Backlash

Not liking how independent women were now becoming by riding bicycles, men tried everything they could to dissuade women from riding them.

A Victorian woman riding a bicycle in a field. There are two men there who are threatening her, and one is holding a gun.

Source: Mysteries of the Past/YouTube

In addition to telling women that they would get bicycle face, they also told women that riding a bicycle would cause exhaustion, insomnia, heart palpitations, headaches, and depression.


Women Were Given Rules for Riding Bicycles

Unable to dissuade women from riding bicycles, they were then given a long list of rules that they had to follow when riding a bicycle.

A Victorian woman changing a chain on a bicycle. Three women are standing behind the bicycle watching her.

Source: Mysteries of the Past/YouTube

Some of the rules, as listed in The Marginalian, were “don’t criticize people’s legs,” “don’t use bicycle slang,” “don’t discuss bloomers with every man you know,” and “don’t ignore the rules of the road because you are a woman.”


Doctors Eventually Questioned 'Bicycle Face'

Eventually realizing that bicycle face wasn’t all it was made out to be, doctors began questioning it in the late 1890s.

A black and white image of two Victorian women riding bicycles. They are both wearing long dark skirts and white blouses. They are riding their bicycles in front of a field that has a house at the top of it.

Source: Mysteries of the Past/YouTube

They came to this realization when it was noted that most people will be concentrating when riding or driving other vehicles and it didn’t cause any lasting damage to the face, which was noted in the American Medico-Surgical Bulletin


A Female Doctor Recommended Riding a Bicycle

With the realization that women riding a bicycle didn’t cause bicycle face, one female doctor then stated that she had been recommending riding bicycles for years.

Three Victorian women riding bicycles. They are holding onto each other's bicycles and are smiling at the camera.

Source: Mysteries of the Past/YouTube

Doctor Sarah Hackett Stevenson, who was based in Chicago, was quoted as saying in the Phrenological Journal and Science of Health that riding a bicycle improves your general health and doesn’t cause any changes to any part of your anatomy. 


Bicycles Gave Victorian Women a Sense of Freedom

Not wanting to give in to having few rights, Victorian women started riding bicycles to get a sense of freedom.

Three Victorian women riding their bicycles. Two men are watching them. There is a sign in the background advertising a restaurant.

Source: Mysteries of the Past/YouTube

For many women at the time, this was their emancipation and gave them a bit of independence that they had long hoped for.