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.