In the Summer of 1895, one of the biggest topics of conversation in Atlanta was bicycles, specifically the question of women riding them. The “anti” side was led by James Boardman Hawthorne, a minister who had risen to some prominence in Southern Baptist circles and who was serving at Atlanta’s First Baptist Church.
Hawthorne had a reputation for wanting to keep women in their place (as he saw it). Ten years earlier, at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, he had been one of the most vocal opponents of seating two female delegates from Arkansas. “I love the ladies,” Hawthorne said, “but I dread them more.”
The preacher based his opinions on the Scriptures. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians clearly said: “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak…. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church” (14:34-35). Hawthorne was also fond of Paul’s first letter to Timothy: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (2:11-12).
Hawthorne cited Paul’s warnings about women when he blocked a female evangelist from speaking in his church in 1891. Members of the church voted overwhelmingly for a resolution agreeing with Hawthorne. It was not a unanimous decision. Among the opponents was Benjamin F. Abbott, a long-time member of the church and a prominent Atlanta attorney. According to the Atlanta Constitution’s coverage of the event, Abbott and Hawthorne met in the church lobby and almost came to blows, “until the minister was induced to leave by his wife.”
Hawthorne expanded his opposition of women beyond the church: he opposed all efforts by women to move beyond their traditional roles. He described the so-called “New Woman” as “self-willed, contentious, arrogant, noisy, combative, … a hideous monstrosity.”
Hawthorne’s biggest attack on the New Woman began with a sermon on July 21, 1895. His text was from the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” As an example of someone who gave in to temptation, Hawthorne offered a hypothetical young woman who sees a bicycle race and wishes to participate. “Swayed by this feeling,” Hawthorne said, “she mounts a bicycle.” And then, “she realizes her disastrous mistake and begins to suffer from the unenviable notoriety of her indelicate and unwomanly conduct…. She says that it was her love of exciting pleasure that tempted her to take the false step. She is mistaken. It was not the love of pleasure, but a personal devil.”
The devil made her do it!
“Quite a little breeze has Dr. Hawthorne succeeded in stirring up by his protest against the riding of bicycles by women,” wrote Julian Harris, the young news editor for the Constitution in a column later that week. The Constitution reported daily on what quickly became the big topic of conversation in the city. There were opinions on both sides of the question. Some accused Hawthorne of sensationalism, and others agreed with him. One letter to the editor said, “The new woman is a Boston institution, opposed to all southern ideas of gentility and refinement.”
The paper reported “a strange parade” in front of Rev. Hawthorne’s home later that week when a half dozen “lady wheelists” took to the street. “As gracefully as the eagle soars these fair wheelers spun along the high embankment and smiled sweetly in the direction of the anti-crusader.”
Hawthorne himself waded into the fray. “I have no time to waste on frivolous critics, who assume that whatever is new and exciting should receive public approbation,” he began a letter to the editor, before wasting time to write 600 words against those critics.
Hawthorne announced that he would preach again on the issue the following Sunday. “The public appetite has been given a keen edge by the newspaper controversies of the past week,” the Constitution reported, and it predicted that “a large congregation will gather to hear him.”
Hawthorne did not disappoint. His title was “Satanic Spiders Who Weave Webs for Human Flies.” “Many satanic spiders in Atlanta have spun beautiful webs in which to catch and destroy unsuspecting flies,” he said. Those webs could be so tempting—and so dangerous. “The characteristic weakness of the new woman is to covet the prerogatives, honors and pleasures of men, and just so far as she yields to this temptation she degrades herself, and becomes despicable in the eyes of all people of virtuous sensibilities. If there is any object on earth which makes jubilee in the realm of unclean spirits it is a ‘society woman’ in masculine habiliments straddling a bicycle, and preparing to make an exhibition of her immodesty on the thoroughfares of a great city.” Hawthorne said he was “making this fight” in order to save women who had fallen into that web and to protect “husbands … who are tired of putting their children to bed and of waiting until the noon of the night [midnight] for their bicycle riding wives to come home.”
Rev. Henry McDonald, pastor of Atlanta’s Second Baptist church, weighed in on the controversy. He said that “he hated to see innocent pleasure made into a sin” and that he “failed to see anything wrong or immoral in the mere riding of a bicycle by the ladies.”
Royal Daniel, a Constitution columnist, wrote, “Whatever may be said by moralists, we who have sisters as pure and fair and chaste as moral ever was, or ever will be, will not believe them immodest after we see them return from a pleasant spin with the blush of health upon their cheeks, with their eyes sparkling with pleasure and delight, simply because they ride wheels and wear bloomers.’
On the other hand, the Woman’s Rescue League in Boston (it “rescued” unwed mothers) passed a resolution in support of Hawthorne because “thirty per cent of the ‘fast girls’ that have come to the Rescue League for aid were bicycle riders at one time.”
The controversy, egged on by the Constitution, continued for several weeks. One of the last salvos came in early September, when Hawthorne asked the newspaper to reprint the “testimony” of Dr. Forbes Winslow, “the famous London alienist” (psychiatrist), who had been in New York recently to chair a meeting on lunacy at the International Medico-Legal Congress. Winslow was asked about women and bicycles, and his response was printed in a New York newspaper: “Horseback riding produces in women substantially the same disastrous results and temptations as does the bicycle, but not to so marked a degree.… Both exercises are too violent for the physical construction of women, and produce such conditions as lead to abnormal appetites and desires.… Moral perversion is alarmingly on the increase.… I have no hesitation in condemning for women all those amusements or occupations which tend to take them from the nursery. That is where woman properly belongs.”
But by this time, the threat of moral perversion had lost a bit of its hold on Atlanta, and the city moved on.
A lot has changed in the last 125 years. First Baptist church, now a megachurch known as First Baptist Atlanta, moved to Dunwoody (an Atlanta suburb) in 1989, with Rev. Charles Stanley as senior pastor. Southern Baptists never took a formal stand against women on bicycles, but they continue to have issues with the New Woman. In 1984, the Southern Baptist Convention finally took a formal stand against female ordination: “We encourage the service of women in all aspects of church life and work other than pastoral functions and leadership roles entailing ordination.” And in 2000, the church said, “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.” Or, as Rev. Hawthorne (almost) said back in 1884, “We love the ladies, but we dread them more.”
Image credit: the feature image is “La bicycliste et caricature, 1897” by Montorgueil, Georges, 1857-1933 (creator) Somm, Henry, 1844-1907 (illustrator) – This image is available from the Brown University Library under the digital ID 1123259547400435.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – and thanks to MomentumMag.com for inspiring us to use it; each of the images used in inside the story were provided by the author and in the public domain.