Wheels of Change: How the Bicycle Empowered Women

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Speed for escaping chaperones. Less burdensome clothes for riding. The bicycle's little-known role in equal rights.

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As much as we love bike culture and everything bikes stand for, we may have underestimated the profound significance of the bicycle as a cultural agent of change. Thanks to a brilliant new book, we no longer do. National Geographic's Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) tells the riveting story of how the two-wheel wonder pedaled forward the emancipation of women in late-19th-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

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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.")

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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" seven pounds), the velocipede made possible previously unthinkable actions and interactions that we now for granted to the point of forgetting the turbulence they once incited.

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"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

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"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

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"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.


This post also appears on Brain Pickings.
Images (top to bottom): Library of Congress,Colorado Historical Society (Cycling West, Vol. 6 April 15, 1897, Scan #30000557); History Colorado (Lillybridge Collection, Scan #20000294); Beth Emery Collection,Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Norman Batho Collection.

Via Sarah Goodyear/Grist.org.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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