Frances Willard: ‘She who gains the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life’
Bicycles are just as good company as most husbands, and when they get shabby or old a woman can dispose of it and get a new one without shocking the entire community. ~ Ann Strong, Minneapolis Tribune, 1895
The advent of the safety bicycle meant that cycling boomed. Starley’s invention had universal appeal: anyone could do it, not just the tall, athletic types who were fit and rich enough to ride a high wheeler. It was a comfortable, reliable and cheap method of transportation for the working and middle class alike. Men and women could travel under their own steam; exploration increased and the gene pool widened.
But the craze sweeping across the western world was deplored by some. The Women’s Rescue League of America issued a resolution that denounced ‘cycling’s great curse’, warning that riding caused ‘diseases particular to women’ and encouraged the evil that was associated with sport. Cycling was seen as unladylike and unchristian; it was cited as causing both sexual satisfaction and infertility.
Frances Willard was one of the most well-known Americans of her time. A leading suffragist and founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, she campaigned against the consumption of alcohol and promoted the bicycle as ‘a more natural thrill’, even though she did not, at the time, know how to ride.
Frances had been a free spirit as a young girl. Raised on a farm, she had spent much of her time in the fields, helping her father and playing – she even made her own plough. But at the age of 16, she was brought inside, dressed in long skirts, corsets and hair pins, and ‘tamed’. For this was her lot, as this was what society expected of women. Physically restricted by their clothes and financially restricted by their reliance on men, their role in life was as angels of the hearth and managers of the home. Known as the fairer – and certainly weaker – sex, women were never considered to be capable of excelling at anything. It was deemed unfeminine to be learned.
Women were discouraged from undertaking physical activity; perceived as timid and frail, they should be protected from danger. Few women were active, despite the emerging recognition that exercise was fundamental to health.
For all her achievements in the world of women’s rights, Frances felt restricted in her life. She never forgot the freedom she had felt as a child, the satisfaction of doing things for herself. So in her fifties, she determined to learn to ride a bicycle. The experience was so liberating, exciting and revolutionary that she wrote a book: A Wheel within a wheel; How I learned to Ride the Bicycle.
The bicycle had given her freedom: freedom from relying on men for transportation, freedom from the shackles of a society that would smother and protect her, and freedom from the gender differences that ruled every other aspect of her life. When she rode a bike, she was autonomous, empowered and equal.
A new world of sensations had been discovered: the thrill of speed, the buzz of exercise, the clarity of mind. She wanted other women to experience this wider world, which she believed to be key in the fight for women’s rights. Once the bicycle was learned and conquered, the New Woman could conquer new worlds. Her natural love of adventure – a love long hampered and impeded – had been rediscovered because of the bicycle, an ‘implement of power’. By riding a bicycle, a woman would ‘become mistress of herself’, transformed into a ‘rational, useful being restored to health and sanity’.
‘I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world, upon whose spinning wheel we must all learn to ride, or fall into the sluiceways of oblivion and despair. That which made me succeed with the bicycle was precisely what had gained me a measure of success in life – it was the hardihood of spirit that led me to begin, the persistence of will that held me to my task, and the patience that was willing to begin again when the last stroke had failed. And so I found high moral uses in the bicycle and can commend it as a teacher without pulpit or creed. She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life.’
The famous suffragist Susan B. Anthony later declared, ‘I think bicycling 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… the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.’
This is an excerpt from my book ‘Pedal Power: inspirational stories from the world of cycling’