By Cindy Cooper, cross-posted at On The Issues Magazine.
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.
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.”