Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom
Our Book Review of Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom
Sue Macy has written many books about the history of women in sports and her latest book, Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires along the Way) has just been published by National Geographic. It is, as you might imagine, a subject very near and dear to my heart. I immersed myself thoroughly in this little book with its fabulous visuals on every page. Its story has a real appeal to readers from youth to adult about the early history of the bicycle in America and its liberating connection to the women’s movement. As a mother of daughters, I am especially eager to share this book to help my two girls gain an appreciation and renewed respect for both the bicycle and women’s suffrage in a way they will never get out their textbooks.
As Wheels of Change reveals, the effect of the bicycle craze was huge! Bicyclists clamored for and got better roads, the culture embraced cycling to the extent that many songs were written about cycling, there were novels with bicycling heroines, bicycling advertisements were everywhere—including some aimed at women in particular. Several cycling themed magazines were published at that time, included one aimed exclusively at women: Wheelwoman. The bicycle influenced attitudes about fashion. Women’s sportswear began appearing in the 1890’s and developed as attitudes changed and women realized there was a need for practical or “rational” dress. For cycling, this meant “Cycling costumes:” shorter or divided skirts or bloomers, which were Turkish trouser-style outfits.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a leader in the women’s movement wrote in an 1895 article for the American Wheelman, that “the bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect, self-reliance….” It was a prophetic statement as women, who were leaving their homes (unchaperoned!) to socialize and cycle on country roads and in parks and becoming more involved in public life. Young women were gaining more freedoms and with that came confidence and a feeling of empowerment as the Victorian era drew to a close.
Thankfully, many doctors gave bicycles their endorsement as a healthy exercise for young women and soon many women discovered a real talent for cycling and especially for endurance cycling. By the early 1880’s some women were soon competing in athletic and endurance events such as century rides, track cycling races in velodromes and even 18- and 24-hour races. Female athletes sometimes competed against men and more often in women’s races both in Europe and North America. Their achievements were covered in the newspapers such as the New York Times, which reported the story of 24-year old Jane Yatman who rode 700 miles in 81 hours, 5 minutes, her last 25 miles were described as “torture” for she rode through a drenching rainstorm.
Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires along the Way) covers all this in thrilling detail. I adore history and have read all I could about early cycling history, but this little book was both more pleasurable to read and also introduced me to many things I didn’t know before! It makes me proud to be both a cyclist and a woman!
Interview with Author Sue Macy
What drew you to this subject of women’s suffrage & the bicycle?
“I’ve written a number of books about women’s sports history and have been aware of Susan B. Anthony’s quote that bicycling “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world” for some time. About six years ago, I started riding my bike again after a long lull—probably over 20 years. I started riding again to train for one of the Danskin triathlons, and I continued to ride even after the race. I started riding on Sunday mornings to get to the farmer’s market in the town next to mine, and teamed with some friends to do another triathlon—I was the cyclist in that one. I suppose the increased role that cycling was playing in my life, and its empowering effect on me, led me to revisit Anthony’s quote and to start researching the book.”
There are many wonderful women to get acquainted with in this book; which of the historical figures in this book did you find yourself most drawn to and why?
“I am awed by Dora Rinehart’s accomplishments, but the woman who really captivated me was Louise Armaindo, the Canadian cyclist who raced on high-wheelers against women and men. She was one of the first female racers, and what’s amazing is that people really took her seriously. They admitted she was unique and extraordinary. Then I found the “Commentary” from Sporting Life that I included in the book (on page 65) reporting that this glorious racer had been reduced to waiting tables at a restaurant in Minneapolis. It was fascinating to get a glimpse into the life of this pioneer female athlete.”
Was there anything in your research for the book that truly surprised you?
“My research helped me realize just how widespread the impact of the bicycle was in the 1890s. The bicycle affected popular culture in so many ways, including the way people—and especially women—dressed, the music they listened to, the magazines and stories they read, and the slang they used. It made exercise accessible and acceptable, and totally transformed social interactions. For a brief moment in time, the bicycle was THE craze in American life, and it changed things forever. The fact that cycling is important again today makes that period in history all the more relevant.”
The Full Quote from Susan B. Anthony in her 1898 letter to the editor of Sidepath magazine:
“I think it has done a great deal to emancipate women. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives her a feeling of freedom, self-reliance and independence. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm while she is on her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood…
The bicycle also teaches practical dress reform, gives women fresh air and exercise, and helps make them equal with men in work and pleasure; and anything that does that has my good word. What is better yet, the bicycle preaches the necessity for woman suffrage. When bicyclists want a bit of special legislation, such as side-paths and laws to protect them, or to compel railroads to check bicycles as baggage, the women are likely to be made to see that their petitions would be more respected by the law-makers if they had votes, and the men that they are losing a source of strength because so many riders of the machine are women. From such small practical lessons a seed is sown that may ripen into the demand for full suffrage, by which alone women can ever make and control their own conditions in society and state.” (Anthony was elaborating on her 1896 quote in this letter.)