Written by Rachel Walman
Did the bicycle offer women a way to break free from traditional gender roles at the turn of the 20th century? Or was it “the devil’s advance agent” pushing innocent young women into sin? Could it even have been a cure for tuberculosis or a cause of heart disease?
You’ll find out when you read Sue Macy’s incredible book Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way). Macy herself will be joining us at the Reading into History Family Book Club this Sunday, April 23 to discuss the intertwined history of women’s liberation and women’s cycling in the United States. At the meeting, we’ll check out some very special women’s cycling artifacts in our galleries and library! To get psyched for this weekend, we talked to Macy about her book. Read on and then cycle over on Sunday to discuss the book with other readers!
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: What got you interested in writing about the history of women and bicycles?
Sue Macy: One of my first books was a history of American women in sports, and I included a bit about Frances Willard and Susan B. Anthony singing the praises of the bicycle in the 1890s. I suspected that there was more to this story. Why were two feminist icons citing the bicycle as a tool in the emancipation of women? I convinced my editor that it was a mystery worth pursuing. I love exploring the impact of everyday objects on people’s lives—especially women’s lives. It turns out that there was quite an interesting story to be told about the bicycle.
DCHM: You write about many fascinating women cyclists from the past in Wheels of Change. Whom do you wish you could meet and why?
SM: I wish I could meet all of them! But if I have to choose one, it would be Dora Rinehart. She rode her bike more than 17,000 miles in 1896—and in Colorado, no less, where there are hills and mountains and many of the roads weren’t paved. That’s amazing! Plus she endorsed products, including bicycles and tires. She was ahead of her time. I’d love to interview her.
DCHM: In this book, you also chart some of the changes in bicycle design over time. Do you think any old bicycle models deserve a comeback? Have you ever ridden any antique bicycles?
SM: I tried hoisting myself up onto two different ordinaries—bikes with front wheels about 50 inches high. Just getting into the seat was an ordeal. I’m a bit afraid of heights, so actually riding those bikes was out of the question. I do think they’re pretty cool, though. Looking at an ordinary immediately brings you back to another era, so I wouldn’t mind seeing someone ride by on one every so often. But if I bought another bike, it would be a feather-light, very modern one.
DCHM: There are so many excellent primary source images and even newspaper articles in this book. How and where did you do your research?
SM: I started at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, but from there I followed leads in all different directions. I found a website, tubulocity.com, that features lots of artifacts from bicycle history, and the proprietor helped me get in touch with Dottie Batho, whose late husband collected many of the artifacts that ended up on the site. Dottie let me use about 60 items from her husband’s collection. She also told me about an annual bicycle auction in Copake, New York. I went to it and saw lots of bicycles that were more than 100 years old and bought some photographs and other items that I used in the book. When I was there I met Beth Emery, another collector, who let me use some of the images she had collected. As for the newspaper articles, I found many of them on the Library of Congress website and other newspaper sites online.
DCHM: Do you think bicycles still help girls and women ride “into a new world” as they did at the turn of the 20th century? How?
SM: I think bicycles empower girls, boys, women, men to be independent and physically fit. In the past decade or so, people have rediscovered the bicycle as a healthy and environmentally friendly way to travel. There’s still a bit of a disconnect where safety is concerned, though—we need better ways for bicycles and automobiles to coexist. But the presence of bike-share programs in many cities is a testament to the continuing impact of the bicycle. Also, as Leah Missbach Day writes in the foreword to Wheels of Change, the bicycle is having an enormous impact on the lives of women in many emerging countries.
DCHM: Is there any bit of women’s or bicycle history that didn’t make it into the book, but you wish it did? Can you tell us about it here?
SM: I’m satisfied with the way the book came out, but I could see a book—maybe an historical novel—that follows the lives of some of the early female bicycle racers. That would be fun! I could find only scant details about them, but a novelist could really develop these amazing characters.