By Frances Elizabeth Willard
A 75-page book about a 53-year-old woman learning to ride a bicycle in 1894 appears, at best, dated and irrelevant—unless you realize it has not much to do with riding a bike.
Frances Elizabeth Willard was one of the leading feminists of her day—a suffragist—a leader of women’s quest for the vote. This college president and Northwestern University dean also fought against demon rum and for social justice for children, including school lunch programs.
The Veggie Biker’s wife, while reading about Tiffany Lamp Designer Clara Driscoll, tipped him off to a quote by another suffragist, Susan B. Anthony, who was quoted by Journalist Nellie Bly that bicycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.???
What strikes a man most in reading this is how physically restricted a woman’s life was in the 1800s. Willard was raised on a farm and loved farm work. “I ran wild until my sixteenth birthday, when the hampering long skirts were brought, with their accompanying corset and high heels; my hair was clubbed up with pins, and I remember writing in my journal, in the first heartbreak of a young human colt taken from its pleasant pasture, ‘Altogether, I recognize that my occupation is gone.’???
Of course, as you read this book on your tablet, you have to keep Googling terms we’ve lost. In the end, you learn the history of Colonel Pope and the safety bicycle, plus the history of the women’s movement.
Willard started with a tricycle, which was being ridden by proper and royal ladies burdened with the clothing styles. But it only lead her to desire a bicycle.
You discover Bertha Von Hillern, an American immigrant from Germany, was the first woman Willard knew of who rode a bicycle. She gave public demonstrations, circa 1877 on how to ride “the wheel.??? A woman riding a bike first became acceptable in France.
And that’s how women’s liberation got a toe out from under those long skirts.
Willard writes not a single person encouraged her, at age 53, to learn to ride a bike, except one young woman. Willard claimed for a while to be the oldest person to learn to ride, until a 64-year-old man captured the title.
Of course, Willard has to prove the bicycle is not harmful to women. “If the girl is normally constituted and is dressed hygienically, and if she will use judgement…in measuring the length of rides…she is in no more danger from riding a wheel than is the young man.???
Of course, just like any sales person, Willard sought endorsements. “Many physicians are now coming to regard the wheel as beneficial to the health of women as well as of men.??? She cites a Dr. Parker. “He advocates cycling as a remedy for dyspepsia, torpid liver, incipient consumption, nervous exhaustion, rheumatism and melancholia.???
However, Willard’s essay is about self-confidence. Don’t look down when you ride; you will fail. “Look up and off and on and out??? when accepting a new challenge, in this case her bike, Gladys. “She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of such an animal as Gladys, will gain the mastery of life, and by exactly the same methods and characteristics.???
Willard also offers stern advice to those who think they can teach. She writes her best teachers offered support by standing just behind her, gently letting go without Willard realizing it (as the Veggie Biker recommended in his piece about teaching children to ride). Even for a mature woman, there was the thrill of discovering she had ridden her bike to the end of the path all by herself. “Let go, but stand by.”
This professor also advises us teachers, when you meet a student in the hall, make sure they know, “I have heard something nice about you.”
Immediately, the safety bicycle gave a woman a form of transportation that increased her travel speed from about two miles per hour to up to 15 miles per hour. And the price was much cheaper than a horse and buggy, which traveled not much faster.
The bicycle also demanded an end to that “unnatural style of dress.??? Those who watch “Mr. Selfridge??? on Masterpiece Theater were introduced to the store’s almost-scandalous, American designer, Irene, by seeing her wheel through the streets wearing an above-the-ankles skirt and bloomers. (See, that insight alone makes the book valuable!) The bike popularized the “rational clothing movement.??? And some 26 years later, there were flappers.
If you are a bicyclist, “A Wheel within a Wheel: How I learned to ride the bicycle,??? is a short, interesting free read for your e-book tablet, with advice for whatever challenge you accept next.