The range of leisure activities for women in turn-of-the-century America – from the highly structured system of "calling" to more casual but still mannered sports – broadened as the amount of free time increased. Leisure broke down many of the barriers between the male and female worlds, offering new opportunities for shared experiences for men and women. In addition, sports and bicycling helped women to break free from the confines of the corset, and, beyond that, from the rigid roles into which they had been cast. The time for leisure that the male world of industrialism created for the middle class ultimately helped undo some of the gender-linked underpinnings of that very system.
Reading fiction and poetry were popular leisure activities for women. Religious novels, like Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur (1880) of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ The Gates Ajar (1868) were sanctioned by moral critics because of the pious content of the works. "Romantic" novels, though condemned by physicians and reformers, were extremely popular. Woman eagerly brought and read such sentimental tales as Rhoda Broughton’s Belinda (1883), in which a tough, passionate heroine is jilted by a lover who claims he is too poor to marry.