The history of women’s rights in America and the history of the bicycle are indelibly interwoven. Susan B. Anthony, famed suffragist, said in 1896, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.” Wheels of Change by Sue Macy documents in historic photos, artwork and very readable text the history of the bicycle and the effect of the bicycle on women’s rights around the turn of the twentieth century.
The bicycle as we know it was achieved after a long evolutionary history that started in the 1600s with the velocipede, a two-wheeled scooter with a seat that the rider pushed along with her feet. It wasn’t until the 1820s that inventors began to explore methods for attaching pedals and cranks to the velocipede’s wheels. The heavy and bumpy “boneshaker” was the next advancement in 1860. By 1870 the first patents were filed in England for the machine that would become known as a bicycle, the high wheeler or penny farthing. Finally, in the 1880s the “safety” bicycle was developed, a new model that looked and worked essentially like the bicycles of today.
Women embraced the bicycle as an instrument of freedom from its earliest incarnations. Unfortunately, they were as encumbered by the fashions of the day as they were by the mores. Attempts were made to produce sidesaddle bicycles to accommodate a woman’s voluminous skirts, but needless to say they met with limited success. Eventually, and with much civic uproar, fashions began to change to meet women’s more active lifestyles. Amelia Bloomer, a New York newspaper editor, made headlines herself when she insisted on wearing long baggy pants under shorter skirts – the bloomers we know today. By the 1890s, more women were demanding the right to wear “rational clothing” that did not trap them in tight corsets or under layers of heavy skirts. The women who pioneered these fashion changes did so, however, in the face of ridicule and even criminal indecency charges.
Despite the disadvantages women cyclists faced in terms of fashion and social disapproval, they continued to ride, even competitively. Jane Yatman and Jane Lindsay had a cycling rivalry in 1899 with each trying to outdo the other for longest rides around a 20-mile course on Long Island, New York. Yatman finally quit challenging Lindsay after Lindsay rode 800 miles in 91 hours, 48 minutes. Yatman chose to instead ride from New York to Chicago – approximately 1,050 miles – in 254 hours and 40 minutes.
If you’re ready to be fascinated by the history of the bicycle and women cyclists, pick up a copy of Sue Macy’s Wheels of Change. Be prepared to settle in for some delightful reading.
Note: I purchased this book with my own money and wrote this review with no expectation of recompense.