Willard, Frances E.

A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle.

  • First edition, first printing, in a variant red cloth binding. This important meditation on bicycling as a tool for the emancipation of women was written by the leading American suffragist Frances Willard. There appear to be two states of the title page, one listing the Woman's Temperance Publishing Association and the Fleming H. Revell Company, the other listing only Revell. It is unclear whether there is any priority between the two.

    The invention of the safety bicycle in the 1870s made the technology broadly accessible to the public for the first time, and by the beginning of the 1890s the US was experiencing bicycle mania. While all sections of the population participated in the new pastime, the bicycle appealed particularly strongly to women, who found in it a new freedom and sense of power. Debates over the propriety of women cycling, and the push for comfortable and non-restricting clothing for female cyclists, provided an arena in which women “actively contested and rethought femininity” (Scranton, Beauty and Business, p. 26). Many leading suffragists were enthusiastic cyclists, and the bicycle became an important symbol for the women’s movement.

    Frances Willard was fifty-three, with a long career as a suffragist and temperance activist behind her, when she first took up cycling. Her initial interest in the sport was sparked by the belief that cycling could 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 experienced as a child in rural Wisconsin.

    This elegant little volume charts Willard’s progress as she learns to ride, and describes how she “found 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).

    A lovely copy of this important book, the perfect gift for a female cycling enthusiast.

  • ...With Some Reflections by the Way. Illustrated. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1895. Octavo. Original red cloth blocked in silver and green on the spine and upper cover with elaborate bicycle wheel design. Portrait frontispiece and six plates. Contemporary ownership inscription in pencil to the first page of the text, ownership signatures in ink to the front free endpaper and title. Cloth a little rubbed, particularly at the tips, contents faintly toned. An excellent, fresh copy.




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