Well Spoke'n

Exploring the World by Bike

Bicycles and Women’s Suffrage

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We have been enjoying cycling through the Central Business District as a way to discover Auckland. On one such trip, we happened upon Khartoum Place. A small pedestrian walkway, just outside the Auckland Art Gallery, it joins Kitchener Street and Lorne Street. Attracted by the shade on a hot afternoon, we wandered through the square and happened upon a centenary commemoration to women’s suffrage in New Zealand in 1893.

A few things struck me in seeing this site. Was 1893 actually an early date in the timeline of women’s suffrage?


In fact, New Zealand, in giving all women the right to vote in parliamentary elections in 1893, was the first self-governing nation to do so. Other countries had granted limited voting rights to women before 1893. In some instances, only women property owners were granted voting rights or in some colonial countries, only women of European descent were granted this right. By way of comparison, some 25 years later in 1918, Canada granted women the right to vote; the United States in 1920. New Zealand was the world leader in this instance.


The historical significance and pride that New Zealanders feel in this event is highlighted on their ten-dollar bill which features an image of Kate Sheppard, who was a key figure in the women’s suffrage movement in New Zealand. A condensed history of Kate Sheppard can be found here.



Interestingly, Canadian fifty-dollar bills issued in 2001 featured the “Famous Five,” five Canadian women who were early women’s rights advocates in Canada. This bill was replaced in 2012 by a bill featuring an image of an ice breaker. Really?  An ice breaker?  New Liberal Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced in January 2016 that he would be strongly supportive of a proposal to put images of “an iconic woman or women” on a Canadian banknote. (As reported by CBC here. ) So, perhaps, with the new Liberal government, women will again find a place on Canadian paper currency.


The second thing that caught my attention about the suffrage memorial was the depiction of the suffragettes with bicycles. What, if anything, was the connection between the two? What role did the bicycle play in the women’s suffrage movement?

The bicycle in its current form with wheels of equal size, gained mass popularity in the 1890’s which coincided with the rise of the women’s suffrage movement. Susan B. Anthony, who was a key player in the suffrage movement in the United States is quoted as saying:

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

The bicycle offered women greater freedom of movement in the world outside their homes. Further, the physical requirements of riding a bicycle necessitated changes in the styles of clothing typically worn by women. Gone were the long, ankle-covering skirts, replaced instead with bloomers and shorter skirts.  It’s easy to forget that in the space of 125 years, we have gone from Victorian dress to spandex cycling shorts.

If you are curious about the bicycle and its importance in social change for women, you can find some thought-provoking reading in How the Bicycle Emancipated Women, or Women on Wheels: The Bicycle and the Women’s Movement of the 1890s or How the bicycle changed the world for women .

A surprising insight, brought to light, on my bicycle.




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