Saturday, August 31, 2013

Horses and Parades and Women’s Lib, Oh My! Part One

August 31st is an auspicious historical date in women’s struggle for personal liberty and the pursuit of happiness. An obscure incident created a stir of minor proportions at the time. The event, quickly forgotten, became a postscript in history, noted in lists of This Day in History events but rarely anywhere else. Yet it marked a turning point for women’s right to wear comfortable, sensible attire unimpeded by society’s archaic norms and served as a symbol for women’s struggle for personal independence.

On Sunday, August 31, 1902, Mrs. Adolph Ladenburg, given name Emily Stevens Ladenburg, created a sensation in the upper crust world of Victorian American high society. Attending summer social events at the fashionable resort of Saratoga Springs, New York, Emily participated in recreational activities, including horseback riding. Her riding apparel consisted of a split riding skirt, allowing her to mount her steed independently and ride astride. This was the first time a respectable woman of means appeared in public in such a risqué outfit.

A picture is worth a thousand words
A split skirt with pants underneath (often called trousers).
The skirt had sections which often could be closed with buttons.
Previously only women in the Wild West – including Annie Oakley - wore trousers or split skirts, but acceptance was limited. In 1895 Evelyn Cameron, an English photographer turned Montana rancher, rode into town wearing a split skirt. The sheriff threatened to arrest her if she did not leave town immediately.

Before moving on to the connection between horseback riding and women’s lib, more on Mrs. Adolph Ladenburg.

I wanted to know more about this daring woman. An Internet search found numerous mentions of Emily’s deed. All noted she was the first to wear the split skirt. And that was it. No details.

Entries were identical, indicating one original source. And they all misspelled her last name. It took some detective work to realize the name was inaccurate and discover the correct spelling. It was initially difficult finding information because her name was misspelled Landenburg.

Entries referred to her as Mrs. Adolph Ladenburg (correct spelling used). It has been a long time since women were referred to solely by their husband’s name. I never liked that protocol. It emphasizes the nothingness of the wife; a total loss of identity and individuality of the woman upon marriage.

Anyway, here is a short bio of Mrs. Adolph Ladenburg.

Emily Louise Stevens was born on December 24 or 25, 1865, the daughter of Alexander G. Stevens, a New York banker, and Mary Stevens.

She married Adolph Ladenburg in 1887. Born in Germany, he immigrated to the U.S., became a naturalized citizen and established the Wall Street firm Ladenburg, Thalmann & Company with a partner. He died February 19, 1896, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, disappearing during a storm while on the steamship Niagara traveling from Nassau, Bahamas to New York City. It was assumed he became ill due to the severe weather, went on deck and was flipped overboard by strong winds and high, rough waves. He left his widow a wealthy woman.

The couple had one daughter, Eugenie Mary, born 1895. Emily never remarried. She died in August 1937.

Now back to horseback riding and women’s lib. There really is a connection!:

Women around the world commonly wore long skirts. As an increasing number of women in the U.S. and Europe began participating in recreational activities such as bicycling and horseback riding, comfortable clothing offering ease of movement became essential. This was especially important for women serious about their horses.

Traditionally women rode sidesaddle. Illustrations dating to Greek times depict women in long skirts riding sidesaddle. The problem with sidesaddle riding is that the rider cannot control the horse. The woman needed assistance mounting the horse and men often led women’s steeds. If a horse took off, the woman was at the animal’s mercy. Regular saddles were designed so, should the horse collapse, the rider could dive away from the animal’s heavy body. It was impossible for the woman, strapped in her seat, to go anywhere. Women were often severely and permanently injured because they could not fall clear of the animal.
Woman riding sidesaddle
Women required assistance getting into the sidesaddle.
Not all women universally wore long skirts while riding. Women of Central Asia, contemporaries of the Greeks, wore trousers and rode astride. Throughout history various women, including Mongols, Comanche women of the American West, and Hawaiians, proudly mounted steeds and rode with their men.

Women in early medieval Europe rode astride. Joan of Arc wore armor and in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales “The Woman of Bath” carried a whip and wore spurs. But as European society became more restrictive for women, their equestrian freedom was also limited. Fashions became more obstructive in terms of movement and activity, and modesty dictated women’s equestrian behavior.

Women could thank Anne of Bohemia for popularizing sidesaddle riding. Anne, the eldest daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, rode across Europe in 1382 to wed King Richard II of England. Roads were primitive and sometimes nonexistent at the time; horseback was the best means of long distance travel.

It was of utmost importance the future Queen be a virgin. How to ensure that after days of rigorous horseback riding an accident did not put into question her chastity?

A broken hymen and blood on the sheets proved a girl’s virginity. Riding astride could possibly, maybe, just might damage a young princess’ (she was about 16) feminine parts.

A special seat was devised to ensure the princess’ comfort and chastity. This method of travel became popular initially among aristocrats, eventually filtering down to all classes of European society. Sidesaddles became the standard for women on horseback.

By the late 19th century in the U.S. women mavericks, usually living and working in far-away places like Hawaii, abandoned society’s norms and rode astride wearing comfortable clothing. But most women remained literally tied to their sidesaddles.

This was a social war – ‘nice’ girls rode sidesaddle.

Emily’s courageous action, pioneering comfortable, practical equestrian attire at an influential high society event, marked a turning point leading to the demise of sidesaddle riding, enhanced recreational opportunities, and foreshadowing Title IX (1972) mandating non-discriminatory practices.

Nice girls wanted to have fun too.

Watch for my next post and the conclusion of Horses and Parades and Women’s Lib, Oh My! Part Two.


  1. THis is quite the history lesson. Thanks for the post and I look forward to part two.

  2. The struggles our female forerunners had to endure to get us to where we are today.