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A Woman, Without A Fish, On A Bicycle

by Cindy Cooper


May 5, 2012

In 1892, suffragist and temperance leader Frances Elizabeth Willard had a truly wild idea: she would learn to ride a bicycle. Willard made this brave decision, in her words, "at the ripe age of fifty three." She later explained it was "an act of grace," emerging from the "pure natural love of adventure."

Willard not only became the rider of a two-wheeler in a mere three months of testing and practice, but she wrote a bestseller to tell about it – A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle with Some Reflections By the Way, a slim volume published in 1895 (reprinted by Applewood Books in 1997). Willard was no wilting flower, but the challenges posed by the chain-driven two-wheeler went beyond balance and mounting to bumpy roads, puddles, clothing, animal interlopers and social propriety. In the end, she saw her accomplishment as a contribution to the advancement of women – to "help them to a wider world."

The popularity of bicycling was growing rapidly with improvements to the two-wheeler. Pneumatic tires, new metallurgy and mass-production helped the bicycle take off in the 1890s. For the prior 30 years, inventors of all sorts had experimented with a variety of forms -- adult tricycles, high-wheelers, hard-tired cycles. Then, the "safety bicycle" came into vogue.

At the time, the Chicago-based Willard was best-known as the leading voice of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, which aimed to "Agitate-Educate-Legislate." Born in 1839, she had graduated from Northwestern Female College in Evanston, Illinois, and went on to teach, become president of the women's college and then the first Dean of Women at Northwestern University. She stumped for all sorts of social reforms, most particularly women's rights to vote and earn equal pay. She had a vast following, giving 400 speeches a year and traveling across the country and world. According to the Women's Suffrage Temperance Union, Susan B. Anthony described her in Washington D.C. as "a general with an army of 250,000."

But Willard had grown up on a farm, a chopping-and-hammering tomboy. "From the day when, at sixteen years of age, I was enwrapped in the long skirts that impeded every footstep, I have detested walking and felt a certain noble disdain that the conventions of life had cut me off from what in the freedom of my prairie home had been one of life's sweetest joys," she wrote.

Willard knew that bicycle riding could make her a subject of ridicule or scorn. In her book, she recalled, "When, some ten or fifteen years ago, Miss Bertha von Hillern, a young German artist in America, took it into her head to give exhibitions of her skill in riding the bicycle she was thought to some to be a sort of semi-monster." But at age 53, Willard was suffering from physical exhaustion and "nerve-wear" after her mother died. Visiting a friend in England, she was "sighing for new worlds to conquer." Bicycling, all the fashion among the society women of France, was it.

On her first attempt, Willard, wearing a "modest" costume of a skirt and blouse of tweed, belt, rolling collar, a bottom hem three inches from the ground, walking shoes, gaiters and a round straw hat, mounted "the machine" with the aid of three young men and then rode with the assistance of two young women on each side and a third holding her steady. Her lessons on "Gladys," as she called her bicycle, continued for days and weeks. At last, she mastered pedaling, turning, dismounting and mounting -- all without assistance.

What Willard found was more than a means of traveling across the landscape or exercising, but, she said, a whole philosophy of life. "I finally concluded that all failure was from a wobbling will rather than a wobbling wheel …. 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."

Willard only lived a half-dozen more years after conquering the bicycle, dying at age 58 of influenza. But the changes to women's lives were rolling and so was the continuing popularity of the bicycle. And the two, perhaps, were spokes of a wheel. Susan B. Anthony reportedly said in 1896: "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. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance."

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Cindy Cooper is a playwright, journalist and author in New York City, and managing editor of On The Issues Magazine.

Also see "Curious Tension: Feminism and the Sporting Woman" by Susan J. Bandy in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See "The Poet's Eye" curated by Poetry Co-Editor Judith Arcana in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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