Flaneurie on Bicycles: Acquiescence to Women in Public in the 1890s

Article excerpt

Although scholars have established the publicity of all types of nineteenth-century women, their public actions are still regarded as morally constrained. We offer one group of public women, bourgeois cyclists, who after encountering public skepticism only briefly were given free rein of the streets and country roads. This propensity of women and men to ride the thoroughfares 'a-wheel' we refer to as flaneurie on bicycles, a technology-mediated form of the pedestrian variety. Similarities and differences necessarily abound because of the requirements of sale cycling and the long-distance rambling capacity of cyclists. We argue, however, that flaneurie of the bicycle kind is largely faithful to the original in that cycling promoted peripatetic individualism, for female as well as male riders.

Bien que des chercheurs aient etabli la presence en publique de toutes formes de femmes de la dix-neuvieme siecle, leurs activites en publique sont toujours considerees moralement contraint. Nous identifions un groupe de femmes en publique, les cyclistes bourgeois qui, apres avoir rencontre brievement le scepticisme du public, a ete donne libre cours aux rues et aux chemins. Cette propension de femmes et d'hommes a faire la bicyclette dans la rue nous avons decrit 'flaneurie sur bicyclette', qui est une forme de flaneurie, mais mediate par technologie. Similarites et differences entre ces deux formes de flaneurie abondent necessairement, a cause des exigances de cyclisme sain et sauf, et la capacite a faire des randonnees long-lointain de cyclistes. Nous proposons, cependant, ce flaneurie du genre de bicyclette est en grande mesure fidele a l'original dans qu'allant a velo a promu l'individualisme itinerant, pour la femelle de meme que cavaliers males.


Recent research on women and the public in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries confirms that women of all types occupied public spaces and especially the streets. However, scholars reconstructing historical womanhood construe women's publicity or publicness as qualified; women's public actions seem almost always to be accompanied by the moralizations and reprimands of conservative Victorians and Edwardians, whose moral zeal is infamous (Himmelfarb 1968; Himmelfarb 2000). (1) Presumably such strictures would render the idea of a female Victorian flaneur or flaneuse quite unlikely (Wolff 1990a; Nord 1995; Gleber 1997); note that the flaneur is seen by Isin (2002, 211-5) to be an anonymous bourgeois professional stranger and is always described by Baudelaire, Benjamin and others as masculine. Yet, women clearly walked the streets and had done so since the beginning of the modern city era, circa 1789 (Stansell 1987); 'modern' women as denizens of the streets had already been a century-old reality in the era of the safety bicycle (see also Ryan 1990). Still, there is a suspicion that 'the female bohemian who strolled and looked with freedom could not exist in the nineteenth century' (Nord 1995, 15). The traditional view that women were not flaneurs arises from the idea that bourgeois society established laws of public morality that simply forbade women from such ungoverned pedestrianism; 'ladies were not supposed to be seen aimlessly wandering the streets' (Vicinius 1985, 297) and women challenged such mores at their peril.

Within the context of a select body of work on female flaneurie and public womanhood in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Vicinius 1985; Buck-Morss 1986; Peiss 1986; Stansell 1987; Pollock 1988; Ryan 1990; Wolff 1990a; Wilson 1991, 2001; Walkowitz 1992; Nord 1995; Strange 1995; Gleber 1997; Deutsch 2000; Rappaport 2000; Spain 2000; Domosh 2001), is it plausible that one group of late-century women did wander the streets practically free of qualifications, despite initial condemnations of the impropriety of their action? The group of bourgeois women we discuss here not only possessed privilege and influence but also used their considerable resources, which for many included an affiliation with institutions, especially voluntary organizations that promoted bourgeois domestic ideology (Mackintosh 2005), to accredit their presence in the streets. …