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Schwinn History

A Brief 'Herstory' of Cycling

Drew Kries

You know what you find along the road toward women's equality and freedom in the modern world? Bicycles.

And this isn't just something we conjured up from thin air. Consider this quote from Susan B. Anthony, one of the most important early champions for equality in the history of the U.S.

"Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world," Anthony is attributed in saying in 1896. "It gives freedom and self-reliance." Anthony's words continue to ring true, some 125 years later.

“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.”


Progressive Pedaling

Anthony's quotes come from a time when the modern bike movement was reaching its peak. In 1885 the basic concept of the modern bicycle was introduced and in 1895, the Arnold, Schwinn & Company bike business was founded. While bike popularity was booming in the late 19th century, America was entering its Progressive Era, a period of powerful political and social reform aimed at shaping a better, more equitable society. The role bicycles played in empowering women in this era is fascinating and well-documented by historians and observers of the time.

As the developments of the Progressive Era took shape America, bikes helped women break from their reliance on men for transportation. Unlike expensive horses or the newly introduced automobile, the bicycle allowed women to be in control of where they went, when they went and who they went with.

“To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play," read an editorial in Munsey's Magazine in May of 1896. "To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.”

Schwinn's stance

Ignaz Schwinn, who had immigrated to Chicago in 1891, was well aware of need to manufacture bikes for female riders. World Cycles, the first line of bikes produced by Schwinn were designed for both men and women. He and his wife, Helen, could often be spotted riding around the city on a special tandem bike (called the "Combination") that had a seat for their young son.

The commitment to inclusivity has stayed with the Schwinn Company. As the 20th century dawned, the company's attention first shifted to motorcycles and then to the kids bike market (equally boys and girls) after the Great Depression. After World War II, when Americans thirsted for fun, stylishly designed bikes and celebrity endorsements helped reestablish the Schwinn brand as a market leader. Hollywood star Dorothy Lamour became one of the bike industry's first female ambassadors, and the Bicycle Museum of America has a color photograph of her posing with her Schwinn in the lead-up to her 1941 film "The Road to Zanzibar."

Continuing that theme in the 1940s and 50s, Schwinn manufactured bikes specifically for female riders. The rapidly expanding population of Baby Boomer girls road Schwinn bikes with names like the Starlet, the Hollywood, the Debutante and the Fair Lady. By 1970, the Stardust appeared in the Schwinn catalog, a bike that was described as "perfect for mother and daughter."

Cartoon illustration of two girls looking at a vintage Schwinn Cruiser bicycle.

Fast forward

Here in the 21st century, bicycles continue to serve as a vehicle of empowerment for women riders.

A 2017 article published by the National Women's History Museum about the relationship between women and cycling contains a brief discussion about how bikes – particularly in developing countries – provide freedom and self-reliance for women. Multiple international aid organizations donate bicycles to women as a means of liberation and provide them the skills needed to fix their own bikes.

At Schwinn the commitment to women riders runs deeper than ever. In 2021, Schwinn partnered with the STKD Racing Squad to help amplify their mission of providing sponsorships, mentors, guidance, advocacy and inclusivity within the cycling industry.

Anna Affias, the founder, owner and manager of STKD Racing Squad, is comfortable helping to lead modern-day discussions about women advancing equality and acceptance.

"It's not the sole responsibility of women to push for inclusivity, " Affias said in her I Am A Cyclist film, "But do I think women can pave the way? Absolutely."

You can view Anna's I Am A Cyclist film below and check out the full I Am A Cyclist series here.

Schwinn History

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