Monday, April 20, 2009

Christchurch Cycling Craze #7 - The Atalanta Ladies' Cycling Club

The Executive Officers of the Atalanta Cycling Club for Women. The officers were Miss Blanche Lough, later Thompson (1847-1963) (Captain), pictured standing in the centre; Miss Keating (Sub-Captain); Mrs Alice Meredith Burn (Hon. Secretary), pictured on the right; Miss Barker (Hon Treasurer). Committee members were Mrs Kate Sheppard (1848-1934); Miss Bertha Lough, pictured seated in the centre; Miss F Adams. Christchurch City Libraries

The Atalanta Cycling Club was formed by twin sisters Blanche and Bertha Lough and friends in Christchurch in 1892 to organise day trips and longer tours as well as picnics and balls. It was named after Atalanta, the female athlete in Greek mythology.

Clearly of an independent spirit and keen to blaze new trails for women, a number of the Atalantans were to rise to prominence beyond their cycling activities as the observant, knowledgeable reader will note. Blanche (Lough) Thompson was to become a social reformer: she participated in the free kindergarten movement, was active in the Red Cross, served in soup kitchens during the 1918 Influenza Epidemic and became the first woman to win a motor car driving competition in New Zealand.

The most famous member of the Atalanta Club, however, was undoubtedly Kate Sheppard, suffragist and social reformer, who was a founding member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) that campaigned for the vote for women who, it was believed, with a majority of the electoral vote would favour prohibition. Working with the likes of Tommy Taylor, reformer & prohibitionist, at The Prohibitionist, Sheppard and the WCTU successfully forced the hand of Richard Seddon's Liberal Government to secure New Zealand women the vote in 1893. New Zealand was the first nation to extend the franchise to women.

But the struggle was far from won: it took another forty years or so for one of their gender to gain a seat in parliament.

In the early days on the streets of Christchurch, the Atalanta Club members were subjected to abuse and even stone throwing as some members of the public found the act of cycling by women to be scandalous. Often one of the brothers of the Lough twins accompanied the group to deter such hecklers and troublemakers.

One of the contributing factors to the unwelcome attention the women cyclists received was the view held by a number of the club members that "rational dress" - bloomers or knickerbockers - should be worn for cycling. By September 1893, such negative publicity had been generated that the Club decided that none of its members should wear rational dress when cycling, though this was relaxed in succeeding years as public attitudes thawed.

Thus, the Atalantans swept up in the Cycling Craze played a key role in transforming social attitudes to women's participation in sport, in improving their health and leisure opportunities as well as contributing to securing the women's franchise.

The Atalanta Ladies' Cycling Club, circa 1892.
Christchurch City Libraries

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