Wheels of Change: How The Bicycle Empowered Women
A visual history of the steed upon which women rode into a new world.
By Maria Popova
As much as I love bike culture and everything bikes stand for, I, like many, may have underestimated the profound significance of the bicycle as a cultural agent of change. Thanks to a brilliant new book, I no longer do. National Geographic‘s Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) (public library) tells the riveting story of how the two-wheel wonder pedaled forward the emancipation of women in late-nineteenth-century America and radically redefined the normative conventions of femininity.
To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.” ~ Munsey’s Magazine, 1896
A follow-up to Sue Macy’s excellent Winning Ways: A Photohistory of American Women in Sports, published nearly 15 years ago, the book weaves together fascinating research, rare archival images, and historical quotes that bespeak the era’s near-comic fear of the cycling revolution. (“The bicycle is the devil’s advance agent morally and physically in thousands of instances.”)
From allowing young people to socialize without the chaperoning of clergymen and other merchants of morality to finally liberating women from the constraints of corsets and giant skirts (the “rational dress” pioneered by bike-riding women cut the weight of their undergarments to a “mere” 7 pounds), the velocipede made possible previously unthinkable actions and interactions that we now take for granted to the point of forgetting the turbulence they once incited.
“Success in life depends as much upon a vigorous and healthy body as upon a clear and active mind.” ~ Elsa von Blumen, American racer, 1881
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.” ~ Susan B. Anthony, 1896
Many [female cyclists on cigar box labels] were shown as decidedly masculine, with hair cut short or pulled back, and smoking cigars, then an almost exclusively male pursuit. This portrayal reflected the old fears that women in pants would somehow supplement men as breadwinners and decision-makers.” ~ Sue Macy
Poignant and playful, Wheels of Change explores the early history of women in bicycling with equal parts illuminating insight and freewheeling fun.
via Sarah Goodyear / Grist
Published March 28, 2011