Ethel Tweedie — Could Her Simple Ride Tear Victorian Society Apart?
by Heather Frey Blanton
In my wanderings to discover Patriots in Lace, the women who settled and built America, I have rarely gone any later in history than the 1880’s. However, this weekend I discovered a frontier that I didn’t really know existed and a woman who explored it. No, she’s not an American, but because I respect her, I wanted to tell you her tale.
Ethel Brilliana Tweedie was born in 1862 in London. From a family of wealth and privilege, she had the finest education accompanied by unlimited opportunities to explore life. A prolific writer, photographer, and illustrator, she seemingly experienced very few boundaries. However, there was one thing Ethel couldn’t do: ride a horse like a man. Good heavens, Victorian society would have come to a complete, screeching halt should a woman attempt such a crass, vulgar thing.
If you don’t know much about side-saddles, suffice it to say they are uncomfortable, unnatural, and downright dangerous. They afford very little control over the horse and if something goes wrong, you’re in the soup. A true horse love and recognized Long Rider, Ethel never let the saddle hold her back. In 1888 she went exploring in Iceland with her brother and several friends. She was astonished to see the local ladies—gasp—riding astride their horses. The riding in Iceland was difficult, treacherous because of ice, and a real slog. Imagine doing it in a side-saddle. Ethel wrote a book about her adventures (A Girl’s Ride in Iceland) and is famous for the following quote: Society is a hard task-master, yet for comfort and safety, I say ride like a man.
The 20-something socialite had no idea the firestorm her book and her comment would ignite. So much so, that when in England, to save her family from complete disgrace, she returned to the abhorrent side-saddle. Still, while she may have bent, she did not break, and became an advocate for women’s rights. Ethel survived the loss of her husband after only nine years together. She then lost a son in the World War I and her only other son in 1926 in an aircraft accident. She never re-married. Ethel had been given the freedom by her husband to pursue her interests in painting, photography, and writing and these probably helped heal her losses. And whenever she could, she rode alone and astride.
Thank you, Ethel, for trying to cut a path through some very deep horse do-do.