How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle: Reflections of an Influential 19th Century Woman

Frances Willard gives a charming account of learning to ride Gladys, her bike (named for the “gladdening effect of its acquaintance and use on my health”), at age 53, despite the ridiculous proper clothing of the time (long skirts flapping in the wind and getting caught on everything). This volume contains an intro by Edith Mayo where I discovered that Willard had a brief engagement that she didn’t mention in her autobiography, Glimpses, and that it was with the guy who later gave her so much trouble at Northwestern college, resulting in her quitting and discovering her life’s work at WCTU. Mayo also bringing up that the temperance praying in front of saloons was a pioneering form of picketing.

Willard describes the bicycle as “the steed that never tires… full of tricks and capers” and hopes to inspire many of her army of women to take it up as well, to discover newfound freedom. Side benefit would be that they dress “more rationally than they have been wont to do.” She goes on to quote a doctor who warns that if a woman “persists in riding in a tight dress… it will be quite possible for her to injure herself.” It’s also good to breathe fresh air and to get exercise, Willard bemoaning that as soon as she turned 16 and had to wear the long skirts that hindered her, she hasn’t enjoyed walking.

The volume ends with a short essay by Lisa Larrabee about Women and Cycling: The Early Years, quoting an article in Lady Cyclist that slammed the murderous corset, “Nothing short of death seems to make the apathetic woman of fashion recognize that her life is one long suicide. Hers is a living death; fainting, hysteria, indigestion, anemia, lassitude, diminished vitality and a host of other sufferings arise from interference with the circulation of the blood and the prevention of the full play of the breathing organs. Such is the woman of old, now happily dying out. Dress reform is one of the great factors in this result, and the cycle is an aid to this reform. ” Also quoted is an 1895 article declaring bicycles to be “just as good company as most husbands and when a bicycle gets shabby or old a woman could dispose of it and get a new one without shocking the entire community.”