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Tracing the History of the Bicycle and Its Impact on Society (November 2016): Women and the Wheel

By Duncan R. Jamieson

Women and the Wheel

First seen as a means for men to exhibit their bravery and masculinity, the bicycle also offered opportunities for women to reshape gender relations. If in the 1880s, as Sarah Hallenbeck posits in Claiming the Bicycle, the high wheel bicycle was masculine and the tricycle feminine, the gender-neutral safety of the 1890s brought the separate spheres of men and women closer together, something not universally accepted as positive. Despite the medical community’s perpetuation of the “shrinking violet” image, women explored the ways bicycling empowered them, improving their physical strength while offering new challenges. Patricia Marks, in Bicycles, Bangs, and Bloomers, investigates how humor reflected and changed people’s attitudes toward the “New Woman” who demanded more freedom to pursue education and a career than society deemed appropriate. In the 1890s short story “Tommy the Unsentimental,” from Willa Cather’s Collected Short Fiction, the protagonist Theodosia Shirley had sufficient education to manage a branch bank owned by her father. She bicycled twenty-five miles in record time to avert the failure of another bank. Florine Thayer McCray’s 1884 novel Wheels and Whims: An Etching traces the tricycle journey of four young women along the Connecticut River from New Hampshire to Long Island Sound. McCray dedicated her novel to the intelligent and sprightly American women in the hopes of encouraging them to take up the wheel to enjoy the benefits of healthy, vigorous exercise and travel in the slow lane. Frances Willard, president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, took up cycling in the 1890s when her doctor encouraged her to get more exercise. She described her reasoning in How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle: “In obedience to the laws of health, I learned to ride. I also wanted to help women to a wider world, for I hold the more interests women and men have in common, in thought, word, and deed, the happier it will be for the home.”1

The bicycle is often credited with advancing dress reform. Even with dress guards and a drop bar, mounting and riding a safety bicycle in the standard dress of the late nineteenth century was challenging. Many women then adopted “rational dress,” which included a shirt and either a divided skirt or bloomers. Many of the nineteenth-century bicycle manuals, including Maria Ward’s Bicycling for Ladies, devoted space to rational dress outfits. These manuals regularly suggested that if done in moderation, bicycling offered women a healthy form of exercise and travel. Elizabeth Robins Pennell echoed these sentiments, yet—ever the feminist—she never adopted rational dress. In Over the Alps on a Bicycle, she described how in the company of her husband she became the first woman to conquer nine passes, and she believed any woman “who is not afraid of work may learn what pleasure there is in the exploit.”2 Contemporaries of the Pennells, Fanny Bullock Workman and Robert Hunter Workman bicycled through Europe, Africa, and India in their fifties before taking up mountain climbing. Like Elizabeth, Fanny was a feminist who refused to adopt rational dress. In Algerian Memories, the Workmans described life in North Africa. Fanny believed that a nation’s modernity could be judged by its treatment of women, which she believed to be poor. Wherever they rode, girls and women constantly asked Fanny about life in other places and seemed to envy her freedom and mobility.

An interesting piece of detective work and historical research is Peter Zheutlin’s Around the World on Two Wheels: Anne Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride, in which he describes how his ancestor made a round-the-world bicycle journey in the mid-1890s in the hopes of winning a bet. She started from Boston and rode through parts of Europe and Asia before returning home across the United States. Zheutlin uncovers that Annie, who took the name Londonderry from one of her sponsors because she feared anti-Semitic repercussions if she used either her maiden name (Cohen) or her married name (Kopchovsky), invented a lot of the story reported in newspapers here and abroad. Still, it was an amazing journey for a young wife and mother to leave her two children and husband to advance her journalism career.

On her tenth birthday in 1941, Irishwoman Dervla Murphy received an atlas and a bicycle. Those two gifts set her on her path to becoming the twentieth century’s doyen of cycling. Twenty-five years later she completed her first long-distance bicycle adventure, from the English Channel to India; her book Full Tilt describes the trip. Throughout her solo journey, she overcame blizzards, floods, and sexual assaults. Like other cycle travel writers, Murphy enjoys the contact that bicycling permits with indigenous peoples. Her writing combines travel and political activism, which is most evident in Tales from Two Cities, which she wrote after several months’ residence in Bradford and Birmingham, England, interviewing Afro-Caribbean, Asian, and white residents and witnessing firsthand the 1985 Handsworth riots. Later, she planned an escape and ride through South Africa. South from the Limpopo chronicles the last days of apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s rise to power.

While Murphy began serious travel as a young woman, Bettina Selby took up cycle travel and writing only after her children had grown up and left the house. She also intended to address areas of concern, as evidenced in Like Water in a Dry Land. While political leaders and their policies have made little headway, the common people in the Holy Land often achieve an amicable society far from the headlines. In Frail Dream of Timbuktu, Selby followed the historic route of her childhood hero, Scottish physician and explorer Mungo Park (1771–1806).

Another woman who came late to bicycling is Anne Mustoe, who, when she retired as headmistress of an English girls school, decided to bicycle around the world. Widowed with grown children, at age fifty-four, overweight, and despite no real cycling experience, she set out on a trip she wrote about in A Bike Ride: 12,000 Miles around the World. She describes her feelings along with the people she met in fourteen countries on three continents.

In Miles from Nowhere, Barbara Savage recalls the around-the-world bicycle journey she and her husband, Larry, began in 1979. Young professionals with no bicycle touring experience or knowledge, they quit their jobs to begin a two-year odyssey, bicycling twenty-three thousand miles through twenty-five countries on four continents. Introspective and funny, Barbara describes how their marriage strengthened as they overcame the obstacles of the road. Sadly, just before the book’s publication, while training for a triathlon, Barbara died in a bicycle accident. Peggy Shumaker nearly met a similar fate when she was hit by a teenager riding a four-wheeler illegally on a bicycle path in Alaska. Her Just Breathe Normally is a fascinating memoir of loss, anger, discovery, and recovery.

1. Frances Willard, How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle (Sunnyvale, CA: Fair Oaks Publishing, 1991), 74.

2. Elizabeth Robins Pennell, Over the Alps on a Bicycle (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1898), 2.

Works Cited