Visualizing the Bicycle and the New Woman in “The Lady’s Realm”
A growing number of historians and cultural studies scholars agree that periodicals play a significant role in the study of history. Unlike canonical histories, these ephemeral texts have the potential to open up a more authentic window into the past. The two data visualizations highlighted in this post use The Lady’s Realm, a British magazine published between 1896 and 1915, to study important ideas in the history of the feminist movement. With a global circulation, The Lady’s Realm was one of the most popular publications in women’s reading rooms during the fin de siècle. Targeting an audience of upper-middle class women, and featuring poems, photographs, fictional stories, fashion advice, and columns by popular authors, The Lady’s Realm advanced ideas important to the New Woman. As early feminists, New Women had a diverse range of agendas, but they tended to value sexual and political equality with men by way of education and employment. By providing progressive advice about women’s fashion, leisure, and health, The Lady’s Realm contributed in important ways to the New Woman movement.
The bicycle served as one of the most important symbols of the New Woman in late-nineteenth-century Britain. By providing women with increased freedom through mobility these machines literally and figuratively liberated riders. As Susan B. Anthony explained, “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world” (qtd. Wosk 114).
As riding bikes became more common and acceptable for British women, there appeared an increased demand for more practical clothing. Sensible clothing such as the divided skirt and bloomers made it easier and more comfortable to ride. Articles and advertisements in The Lady’s Realm challenged the fashions of tight corseting and large, cumbersome hoop skirts (crinolines) by advising women when and how to wear functional clothing.
The Lady’s Realm popularized bicycle riding as an important contributor to women’s fashion and the cause of women’s rights. Illustratively, visualization #1 (above) shows that usage of this term increased in this periodical from the 1890s to the 1910s. Visualization #2 (below) suggests significant connections The Lady’s Realm drew between the bicycle and political ideas, such as the “vote.”
In order to express the relationship between the New Woman and the bicycle, undergraduate students at Georgia Tech enrolled in my Spring 2018 course titled “Victorian Digital Humanities,” used distant reading to study and create data visualizations about The Lady’s Realm. Using data analysis tools and outside sources to examine this periodical in detail, these students demonstrate that the frequency and context of articles and stories relating to the bicycle in The Lady’s Realm can tell historians much about the New Woman with respect to fashion, sexuality, and suffrage.
The methods that this team employed were sophisticated. This group used HathiTrust to obtain issues of The Lady’s Realm spanning the years between 1896 and 1913, and then analyzed word frequency relating to the bicycle using HathiTrust Research Center (HTRC) analytics and an application called Voyant. HTRC analytics runs text algorithms to create word frequency clouds, and it displays words that appear together to aid in the identification of patterns in large data sets. Voyant is a tool that also permits scholars to find and identify patterns as it analyzes word frequency, years the words appear, and phrases that surround certain words. Students used both of these data analysis tools to chart how the appearance of keywords increased or decreased over time, as well as to locate patterns in regards to the words that appear adjacent to their keyword “bicycle” (for example, “vote,” “political,” and “free”). Students used these tools to test hypotheses, such as their hunch that the word “bicycle” would appear more frequently over time. They also anticipated that increased acceptance of the New Woman in the twentieth century would alter the words that appeared in proximity to “bicycle.” Comparing word frequency with historical shifts in the women’s rights movement and women’s fashion illuminates suggestive connections between these trends.
The two data visualizations I showcase in this post suggest the compelling and surprising arguments that word frequency over time can reveal in historical texts. Future researchers may wish to build on these results to better understand the history of the New Woman and the bicycle, particularly as they relate to British periodicals aimed at women readers.
Baggs, Chris. “‘In the Separate Reading Room for Ladies Are Provided Those Publications Specifically Interesting to Them’: Ladies’ Reading Rooms and British Public Libraries 1850–1914.” Victorian Periodicals Review 38. 3 (Fall 2005): 280–306.
Maynard, Margaret, ‘“A Dream of Fair Women”: Revival Dress and the Formation of Late Victorian Images of Femininity.” Art History 12.3 (September 1989): 322–41.
Ledger, Sally. The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siècle. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997.
Winkworth, Kylie. “Women and the Bicycle: Fast, Loose and Liberated.” Australian Journal of Art 8 (1989): 96–121.
Wosk, Julie. Women and the Machine: Representations from the Spinning Wheel to the Electronic Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001.