By Arthur Bird, M.D.
Godey’s Magazine, 1897
Shall women ride the bicycle? Or is it such an abnormal form of exercise that, while under reasonable limits it is acknowledged to be health-giving and conducive to the well-being of man, yet for woman it is not to be recommended? A calm and dispassionate consideration of the arguments for and against will, I hope, lead the vast majority of people to decide in favor of the sport.
The writer does not claim that every woman is able to ride the bicycle without injury, any more than he would assert that every man can take up this form of exercise with impunity; but that, of either sex, the greater number can be and are greatly benefited by the proper use of the wheel rationally indulged in, just as much as by other forms of physical exercise reasonably used and directed.
The advisability of taking up the bicycle is to be decided by the condition of the individual. Broadly stated, every person who is in good health and able to undergo the usual exertions of life, and who is free from any indication of disease, can ride the wheel. Anatomically and physiologically, no such difference exists between man and woman as would preclude the latter from indulging to a proper degree in physical exercise. I am sure that if the question of woman’s ability to perform the ordinary duties of life and the usual labor incident to the care of her home were brought up for discussion, little support would be given to any claim that she was not fitted or able to perform these duties in such degree as they usually fall to woman’s lot.
The old idea that a woman should not engage in out-of-door sports has long since been abandoned, and their beneficent effect upon her is daily seen in our young women and growing girls, whose step, erect carriage, and glowing color are in themselves unmistakable evidences of health.
All the arguments against women’s use of the bicycle are to me fallacious. On that side are brought forward disadvantages which in reality do not exist, or should not exist if the rider is properly instructed and mounted. In my opinion the bicycle has been of the greatest value in preserving and restoring health to all people who have used it without going to excesses either in speed or distance. Everyone before using a bicycle, or indeed, going into any sport which involves continued muscular exertion, should seek the advise of a physician and ascertain if there is any weakness which should forbid such exertion.
For a woman, bicycle riding possesses advantages which are shared by no other form of exercise. Its influence upon both body and mind are beneficial. The exhilarating effect produced upon a rider’s mind by the swift and easy movement, the rapid presentation of changing scenery, at once interest the brain and distract its attention from cares and worrying thoughts; and it is this influence which has made all riders so devoted to their exercise and constant in its practice. Any form of training which is not enjoyable quickly becomes laborious, and is not productive of such good results as it would be were the mind interested in its pursuit, and by it enticed from the constant pressure of worries of life for the time...
I have said that there is no anatomical or physiological difference between man and woman which should make wheeling healthful for one and harmful for the other; but there are those who raise points of objection against the sport for either sex. There are two of these in particular which have weight, but which can be nullified by the rider at the outset of his career. One of these is based on the formation of the saddle, the other on the position assumed by the wheelman. The old styles of the saddle were doubtless dangerous for long-continued riding, but the application of hygienic principles has been carried so far now in the manufacture of the seat that no vital objection can lie in this direction. So long as the points of contact are not materially different from those we are accustomed to in the usual sitting posture or even in horseback riding, the danger of bicycling is not greater (viewed from this standpoint) than is sitting or riding.
The posture of the rider is dependent upon the adjustment of the seat and handle-bars. Doubtless these may be so set as to force a position in which the spine is curved and the lungs compressed; but it is as much a matter of choice with the rider whether he will sit up straight or make himself round-shouldered as it is with anyone who walks or sits. The argument against bicycling on this ground is equally applicable against standing or sitting or lying down.
A number of my patients have consulted me as to the advisability of their using the bicycle. To only two have I been obliged to say that it would not be wise. Those whom I have advised to ride have been benefited very markedly, and some from almost a state of invalidism have been restored to comparative health.
From my own experience, which I think cannot be different from that of other practitioners, I can assert that the influence of the bicycle has already made itself felt in a marked degree upon the general health of the community. I notice it in the patients, especially the women, who come under my care, and my advice to them is always in favor of its use except where there is some special pathological obstacle.
My concluding recommendation to readers is: Be sure to consult a physician who knows how to ride a wheel himself. With this reservation only, it is safe to say to all men - and women - ride the wheel rationally, and a bright eye, a clear mind, and a long life will be yours.