Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wheels of Change

How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom
(With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way)
By Sue Macy
$18.95, ages 8 and up, 96 pages

For women at the close of the 19th Century, the bicycle was like a silent steed ready to carry them away.

It gave them courage to break free of society's rigid hold and carve out their own dreams, according to this fascinating account by award-winning Macy.

"Imagine a population imprisoned by their very clothing: the stiff corsets, heavy skirts...," she writes. "And how liberated they must have been as they pedaled their wheels toward new horizons."

With the arrival of the high-wheeler and later bicycles in America, women gained a degree of mobility they'd never known and gradually, often unconsciously began to try things that only men were allowed to do.

The female cyclist "did not have to be born again in some mysterious fashion, becoming a strange creature, a 'new woman,'" Munsey's Magazine suggested in 1896. "She is more like the 'eternal feminine,' who has taken on wings, and who is using them with an ever increasing delight in her new power."

A few years later, a French cycling poster echoed this perception, showing an Athenian-looking woman with angel wings standing beside her two-wheeler.

The bicycle spurred a fundamental shift in how women were viewed. Until then, women felt restricted to home and were strictly supervised; now they could hop on a bike and go for a ride and get exercise.

The advent of the two-wheeler "has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world," wrote civil rights activist Susan B. Anthony in 1896. "I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel." 

As more women took to pedals, "rational" fashion had to go, and along with it, straight-laced ideas of propriety.

Full skirts, corsets and bulky petticoats of the day were impractical, even dangerous. Fabric would catch in crank bracket and send women flying. So a less restrictive style of dress was born, first ungainly bloomers and eventually shorter skirts.

Soon women felt encouraged to enter bicycle races and were joining other feminists in demanding the right for better schooling and jobs. However, the road to equality was bumpy, much like the dirt roads they rode on, and one of the worst critics was female.

Charlotte Smith, founder of the Women's Rescue League, condemned the bicycle craze as "indecent and vulgar," calling the two-wheeler "the devil's advance agent." 

In 1897, male students protested the admission of female students to Cambridge University in Great Britain by hanging in effigy a female mannequin sitting on a bicycle.

Other morally conservative commentators suggested cycling among women was unhealthy and could jeopardize a woman's ability to have children.

Yet there was an undercurrent of support for cycling that couldn't be stopped, even from members of clergy who Smith expected to be on her side.

At the time of Smith's remarks, a respected New York clergyman dismissed her accusations, as did Ellen Parkhurst, the wife of another New York minister.

"A girl who rides a wheel is lifted out of herself and her surroundings," Parkhurst wrote in Washington's Evening Times. "She is made to breathe purer air, see fresher and more beautiful scenes, and get an amount of exercise she would not otherwise get."

Indeed, it ushered in, as Macy describes, a "cosmic shift" in women's private and public lives: not only setting them loose to realize what they could achieve, but building their confidence and independence.

"I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world, upon whose spinning wheel we must all learn to ride," wrote Frances Willard, founder of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union.

Girls will look at their bicycles with newfound awe after reading this brisk, entertaining account, and will want to hop on for ride and see how far they can go.

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