Wheels of Change

This weekend I had the pleasure of reading a book about women and cycling called Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) by Sue Macy. It’s a wonderful book. It’s a fast read, at only 96 pages with lots of pictures and not a lot of text; it’s aimed at a young adult market, but great for anybody interested in the subject.

The pictures themselves were wonderful: pictures of cool old bicycles, of old advertisements for bikes and cycling gear, of women on their bikes, of the clothes women wore while riding. I’ve always wanted posters of women cyclists from back in the early days of cycling, although I haven’t yet collected any, and I saw tons of images in this book that would be perfect for the purpose.

The text, although short, is fascinating. It focuses on the last couple decades of the nineteenth century when the bicycle first became popular and when women began riding, often as a way to find more freedom and independence. Macy first discusses the invention of the bicycle, and then moves on to debates over the safety, propriety, and morality of women riding. Some writers applauded the new opportunities for exercise and freedom the bicycle offered women, while others worried about what women might get up to with that new freedom or whether they would bother to attend church anymore if they could be out cycling instead. Some tried to regulate and monitor women’s behavior on the bicycle, as did, for example, an article from the Omaha Daily Bee from 1895 with a list of “Don’ts for Women Wheelers.” Some “don’ts” from this list include:

  • Don’t be a fright.
  • Don’t carry a flask.
  • Don’t attempt a “century.”
  • Don’t say, “Feel my muscle.”
  • Don’t criticize people’s “legs.”
  • Don’t boast of your long rides.
  • Don’t go to church in your bicycle costume.
  • Don’t imagine everybody is looking at you.
  • Don’t ask, “What do you think of my bloomers?”
  • Don’t try to ride in your brother’s clothes “to see how it feels.”

If it weren’t for the rule about not going to church in your bicycle costume, I’d be tempted to break every one of these rules, just for the fun of it. But I really can’t go to church in a bicycle costume, at least not a modern-day “costume.” I’m not entirely sure what they mean by “Don’t be a fright,” either.

Macy has a chapter on clothes for cycling and how cycling influenced the movement toward more comfortable clothing for women. The was a debate about the acceptability and aesthetics of the above-mentioned bloomers, but there was such a strong backlash against them, they didn’t last long. Cycling did encourage shorter skirts and fewer layers of bulky undergarments, however.

My favorite section was the one on women racers. There were women from the 1880s and 1890s whose riding and racing puts me to shame — and they did it on heavy, clunky bikes and without spandex. Louise Armaindo, for example, rode 1,050 miles in six days, on a 1/8-mile track. Dora Reinhart rode 17,196 miles in one year, riding centuries for days in a row, including a stretch of 10 days and another of 20 when she rode a century every day. In 1894, Annie Cohen Kopchovsky rode much of the way around the world, setting off with no money and only two lessons in bicycle riding. Some women were fiercely competitive: Jane Yatman and Jane Lindsay battled to see who could ride the most miles in the least number of hours. Lindsay eventually won with an 800-mile ride done in 91 hours, 48 minutes.

It makes me hurt just to think about it. These women are an inspiration.

There’s so much that’s interesting in this book, but it only scratches the surface and I wish it were longer. But that’s my only complaint. If you’re at all interested in cycling and/or women’s history, I highly recommend it.


Filed under Books, Cycling, Nonfiction

14 responses to “Wheels of Change

  1. ‘With a few flat tyres along the way’ sort of sums up why I’ve never really been a cyclist, although when I lived four miles out of the nearest town for a while I did have a cycle simply because I couldn’t afford to buy a car and there was no bus service. I would still find this fascinating though because of what it says about the growth of women’s freedom. And, I love those don’ts. Is ‘What do you think of my bloomers?’ the equivalent of the modern day ‘Does my bottom look big in this?’ do you think?


  2. This is clearly the perfect book for you, Dorothy! That list of ‘don’ts’ is hilarious, and appalling. The regulation that women have always lived under! It doesn’t bear thinking about.


  3. And, mostly, they were riding fixed gear bikes, right? So they had to either be pedaling or put their feet up on the little footrests. No pedal-coast strategies, no granny gears. They truly were amazing, wonderful role models for us!


  4. Don’t carry a flask? Was drinking and bicycling a problem of the times? Those women did some impressive riding. What great physical condition they must have been in. They make me feel so lazy.


  5. Wonderful.
    I’m writing a piece on taxis now so I’ve been dipping around in this stuff. It’s a lot of fun & very inspiring to read about how women claimed space & the right to cycle before men could call bikes male or figure out a “proper” way for them to ride.


  6. I highly enjoyed following your tweets about this book as you were reading it. Those “don’ts” are pretty revealing! I love the fact that “legs” is in quotation marks – are they cautioning against the cattiness of the criticism itself, or the unladylike use of that particular word? Like, if you criticized another rider’s “appendages,” would you be in the clear? Also, it’s pretty fascinating to me that women were riding around in their brothers’ clothes “to see how it feels.” Suggestive…


  7. OH! Or do they mean “legs” of a relay race? That’s probably it…mildly disappointed that it wasn’t Victorian prudery at work. πŸ™‚


  8. I’ve read about the freedom that bikes gave women and was surprised and fascinated by it. But I didn’t know about the women racing. Thanks for that! πŸ™‚


  9. Funny to think of a woman riding a bike as possibly doing something immoral. Oh how times have changed (thankfully in most cases!). This sounds like a fun book–pretty amazing what women accomplished wearing bloomers! πŸ™‚


  10. Eva

    Ohh, this sounds perfect since I’m a new bicycling addict! πŸ˜€


  11. Still laughing at the “don’ts” — I think this one is a must read!


  12. Breeana P

    Sounds like a great book on all levels, I’m so glad they included how womens fashion changed due to riding. It is crazy to think how women were looked at differently by becoming bike riders, again, something we just take for granted. Can’t wait to read this one, a short read ca be so satisfying when done well, especially with pictures.


  13. Annie — flat tires and other equipment problems can be a real pain; they make me wish I could just take up running sometimes. But running isn’t near as much fun! I think you are right about the bloomers comment — both questions seem equally tacky.

    Litlove — It was so fun to read such a celebratory book! It talked about restrictions on women, but it focused more on the great ways women defied them, and that was fun. It IS the perfect book for me! I’m very glad I could get a copy.

    Bardiac — I’m not sure if they were fixed gears or just bikes with only one gear. I asked Hobgoblin about that, and he thought the latter. Either way — a tough ride! Yes, those women are definitely inspirations.

    Stefanie — those women make me feel lazy too! I wondered the same thing about the flask comment. Drinking and riding sounds like a very, very bad idea!

    Anne — it IS a wonderful story. Your piece on taxis sounds intriguing!

    Emily — the idea that it might be legs of a relay race didn’t occur to me at all. Good point. There was no explanation of the list in the book, so I have no way of knowing what it meant. I took “legs” to mean leg strength. Cyclists talk all the time about having no legs, my legs are shot, fresh legs, etc., almost as though they are separate from our bodies. So the quotation marks might reflect that distancing. But I’m really not sure. I want to know now!

    Lilian — I didn’t know about women racing either — and what amazing racing they did!

    Danielle — it’s absolutely amazing what women accomplished under circumstances much less comfortable than ours now. I’m SO glad I have spandex and padded bike shorts, plus super-light bikes and lots of gears, and also special cycling food and helmets. Oh, and clip-in pedals, etc. etc. What I do is not impressive at all! πŸ™‚

    Eva — awesome that you are a cycling addict! I love it!

    Jenclair — I highly recommend it!

    Breeana — the fashion part is great, and the pictures worked perfectly to illustrate the author’s points. Definitely this is a short book that accomplishes something great.


  14. This does sound like a perfect little book–I like focused, interesting books like this, and the list of don’t is priceless, and I’ve never said “feel my muscle” in my life. Sadly, I believe I always look a fright when I ride my bike! Thank goodness for bicyles and all that they have wrought.


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