Sylvia Pankhurst and Cycling for Suffrage
Since former mayor Boris Johnson boosted the biking boom back in the early 2010s, London’s status as a cycling city is catching up with its European neighbours. But still too few women and people from ethnic minority groups cycle in London, according to Mr Norman, the capital’s first cycling commissioner, who said in an interview with the Independent earlier this year that more needs to be done to promote diversity among a largely white, male and middle class biking community.
Interestingly, one hundred years previously in Bow and around Roman Road, cycling played an important role in the life of Sylvia Pankhurst, founder of the East London Federation of Suffragettes. At a time when cycling was not considered suitable for women, Pankhurst integrated bicycles into the women’s suffrage movement as a form of protest, spectacle and as the most effective mode of transportation for their vandalism missions.
In her recent lecture Pedalling Days: Sylvia Pankhurst and Political Cycling Traditions from Clarionettes to Suffragettes, historian Dr Sheila Hanlon revealed how central cycling was to the suffrage movement. Dr Hanlon has kindly shared her lecture with Roman Road LDN. It was originally delivered at this year’s 2018 Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Lecture in Sheffiled.
Sylvia Pankhurst and the Clarion Cycling Club
Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst was an English campaigner for the suffragette movement, a prominent left communist and, later, an activist in the cause of anti-fascism. She spent most of her life campaigning for women’s rights and eventually managed to win the right for women to vote.
Much less of Sylvia Pankhurst is known about her participation in another progressive activity with a political edge; cycling. Sylvia’s cycling world included rides with her family, the politics of the Clarion Cycling Club and campaigning for the vote with the cycling suffragettes. Cycling and suffrage intersected in Sylvia’s personal and political life.
The Pankhurst family joined the Clarion Cycling Club (CCC) in 1896. The CCC, formed in 1894 in Birmingham, was a socialist cycling group associated with Robert Blatchford’s radical newspaper The Clarion.
The CCC combined political activism with recreational cycling. Bands of Clarion Scouts served as socialist missionaries, holding meetings in rural villages distributing pamphlets, leaving behind copies of the Clarion, selling Blatchford’s Merry England (collection of essays on socialism by Robert Blatchford), and drumming up support for the cause.
The Clarion Cycling Club was an important part of the Pankhurst family life. The girls grew up reading The Clarion, and met key figures in the socialist movement, such as Blatchford, in their family home.
When Richard Pankhurst died in 1898, a band of Clarion Cyclists rallied together to accompanied his funeral procession. The death of her father marked the end of Sylvia’s carefree days of youth. She gave up her membership in the Clarion CC, explaining “my life had become far too serious and too anxious to leave room for cycling.”
Cycling for Suffrage
Cycling played an important role in another side of Sylvia’s life – the women’s suffrage movement. Bicycles have long been connected to women’s emancipation. Women were there on the margins as far back as 200 years ago when the first proto-bicycle was invented, the draisienne in French or dandy horse in English. The invention of the safety bicycle in the 1880s transformed cycling into a popular form of mass leisure.
During the 1890s cycling craze, women accounted for a third of bicycle riders, most of whom were middle and upper class. Ladies drop frames were available in virtually all makes, women’s cycling magazines flourished, and lady cyclists rode everywhere from private academies and quiet park lanes to public thoroughfares and country lanes.
The association of cycling with new women was quickly established. The pastime caused great moral and medical debate ranging from the physical dangers of riding to the social consequences of women’s mobility. Gendered social anxieties led to fears that women would cycle away from the domestic sphere, abandon their husbands and children, become manly, and evade their chaperones.
Cycling dress was also an issue. Rational knickerbocker cycling costumes were the most practical outfit but their association with masculinity and the negative reception they received in public led most women to stick to long skirts.
At the dawn of the 20th century when the women’s suffrage movement gained momentum, campaigners marshalled every resource available into the battle for the vote. Bicycles were integrated into the suffrage campaign in ingenious ways, ranging from peaceful protests to militant missions.
There was even a “Votes for Women” bicycle produced by the Elswick company and painted in the WSPU (The Women’s Social and Political Union) colours, purple white and green. It was embellished with a medallion of freedom, based of course on Sylvia’s design.
Cycling suffragettes and suffragists were particularly helpful for promoting events. To advertise the WSPU’s 1908 Hyde Park Demonstration, Jus Suffragii (the official monthly journal of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance between 1906 to 1924) reported ‘parties of cyclists…[rode] through the streets with decorated machines, distributing leaflets and holding short meetings.’
Cycling played a more insidious role during the WSPU’s militant phase. Suffragettes on arson and vandalism missions found bicycles convenient for transportation and other creative purposes. According to The Glasgow Herald, for example, in 1914 two militants set out by bicycle in a failed attempt to blow up Burns Cottage in Alloway, the birthplace of the poet Robert Burns. Cyclists were accused of a number of “Pillar Box Outrages”, riding up to post boxes and damaging the royal mail with oil or corrosive substances.
Beyond their political work, suffragists and suffragettes also cycled for pleasure and transport – we can’t forget that these women found riding just as practical and as much fun as we do today. The Women’s Suffrage Who’s Who, a 1913 directory to the suffrage movement including bios of nearly 800 women, lists cycling as their fifth most popular outdoor recreation.
If we time leap forward in time to today, women’s cycling is undergoing a renaissance. More and more women are taking to their bikes for recreation, transportation and politics. Cycling has never been more alive as part of activism, such as the Pedal4Progress riders who helped raise funds and awareness in support of the Sylvia Pankhurst memorial sculpture to be erected in Clerkenwell Green.
From the Clarionettes to Suffragettes, Sylvia and her fellow political campaigners harnessed the power of the bicycle as an ally in the fight for equality.
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