A Wheel Within a Wheel: Bicycles & Women's Rights

November 30, 2015

A Wheel Within a Wheel: Bicycles & Women's Rights

As specialist in science and technology I'm not interested in discoveries and inventions only for their own sake, but also for how they affect people's everyday lives, sometimes in unexpected ways. A wonderful example is the adoption of the bicycle by late-19th century women as both a practical tool and a symbol of freedom. In A Wheel Within A Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle (1895), the American suffragist leader Frances Willard describes her attempts to master this new technology, as well her belief that the bicycle will transform women's lives and their fight for equal rights.

The story began in the 1880s, when the new safety bicycle replaced the dangerous penny-farthing and made the technology accessible to non-sportsmen for the first time. By the beginning of the 1890s the US and UK were experiencing bicycle mania. While all sections of the population participated in the pastime, bicycling appealed particularly strongly to women, who found in it a new sense of freedom and power. Debates over the propriety of women cycling and the push for comfortable and non-restrictive clothing for female cyclists provided an arena in which women “actively contested and rethought femininity” (Scranton, Beauty and Business, p. 26). Leading suffragists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, were enthusiastic cyclists, and the bicycle became an important symbol for the women’s movement.

Frances Willard was fifty-three, and a long-time suffragist and temperance activist, when she first took up cycling. Her interest was initially sparked by the belief that cycling would draw men and boys away from alcohol by offering more wholesome thrills. But she also felt stifled by the lifetime of restricted movement she had endured as a 19th-century woman, and sought to regain some of the joy of physical activity she had experienced as a child in rural Wisconsin.

A Wheel Within a Wheel charts Willard’s progress as she learns to ride with the help of female friends, and describes how she finds "a whole philosophy of life in the wooing and winning of my bicycle” (p. 25). She muses eloquently on the thrill of speed, the joy of mastering an athletic skill, and the delights of the outdoors, and compares the tribulations of learning to ride with those of life in general. Most importantly, Willard discusses how the bicycle will transform “the woman question”.

“If women ride they must, when riding, dress more rationally than they have been wont to do. If they do this many prejudices as to what they may be allowed to wear will melt away… A reform often advances most rapidly by indirection. An ounce of practice is worth a ton of theory; and the graceful and becoming costume of woman on the bicycle will convince the world that has brushed aside the theories, no matter how well constructed, and the arguments, no matter how logical, of dress-reformers” (pp. 38-39).

“We saw with satisfaction the great advantage in good fellowship and mutual understanding between men and women who take the road together, sharing its hardships and rejoicing in the poetry of motion… The old fables, myths, and follies associated with the idea of woman’s incompetence to handle bat and oar, bridle and rein, and at last the cross-bar of the bicycle, are passing into contempt in presence of the nimbleness, agility, and skill of ‘that boy’s sister’” (pp. 40-41).

This copy of A Wheel Within a Wheel is particularly special, as it's in absolutely beautiful condition in the rare glassine dust jacket. Dust jackets from any 19th-century book are scarce because they were usually discarded immediately, especially if they were plain glassine or paper like this one. We also have another copy in a variant red cloth binding. Either one would make a wonderful gift for a cyclist.

Modern women, whether cyclists or not, owe a great deal to the pioneers who came before us on two wheels and made technology the servant of progress. As Adrienne LaFrance wrote in a recent Atlantic piece, "I couldn't help but imagine what it must have felt like—in an age when American women were still decades from the right to vote and inundated with men's opinions about their ankles—for a woman to to go outside, hop on her bicycle, and ride as fast as she could wherever she wanted, leaving the rest of the world wondering where she might go".