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.”

Woman and temperance: or, The work and workers of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union

Whoo-ee, another gripping page-turner of a book about prohibition! There’s something a bit disconcerting about the lavish praise heaped on Frances Willard by her adoring minions of the WCTU… they devote an introductory chapter of this book to describing in great detail St. Frances’ upbringing (“sprung from that strong New England stock which, when transplanted into Western soil, often finds the best conditions of growth”). Skip the encomiums and get right to the heart of the beast, Willard’s attempt to describe the history and advocates of the WCTU. It’s fairly dry stuff, pun partially intended. With all the praying and hymnal singing and speech-making, there’s not a lot that my brain wants to linger on here. Part of the reason this section of the prohibition story remains under-appreciated is because the characters are all too good and godly. Where’s the scandal? Where’s the drama? Instead, we have chapter after chapter (punctuated with grim line drawings) of the ladies involved. My head nearly bursting with Jesus picnics and earnest entreaties, I began to focus only on the stories of those ladies labeled Miss, not Mrs, hoping for something of more interest (nope). On page 227 there is a recipe for unfermented wine, should you be in the market for such a thing (crushed grapes and water boiled then strained, sugar added). With this, I leave my Willard wanderings and hop onto more colorful characters.

Glimpses of Fifty Years 1839-1889

This 700 page book is hardly “glimpses” of a life. Frances Willard, on occasion of her fiftieth birthday, is pressed by her pals at the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (where she reigns as president) to write up her memories; the title page even exhorts that it was written “by order” of this group. An intro by Hannah Smith cautions us readers that whoever reads the book must remember that it was written by request of the women of whom Willard is their leader, the white ribbon women of America, and if others see it, “that is their own good fortune.” Or not, as you may think as you struggle to flip page after page of excruciatingly detailed autobiography yearning for an editor. There’s an explanatory note on the copyright page (1889) saying that she turned in twelve hundred pages that were whittled down to the seven hundred I suffered through, ye gods. Lazily, I will probably turn to a more recent biography of Willard to gain what I had intended–a better understanding of the events that led up to the 18th constitutional amendment in 1919 prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol that was repealed by the 21st amendment ratified in 1933. Willard is also important in her work for women’s rights, so I sprinkle in notes for both topics below. There are some decent bits and quotes which I’d forgotten in the long slog, delighted to find again as I wrote this up.

The first temperance lecture Willard attended was by Parker Earle of the Illinois Temperance League. Here she learned there were 1500 shops in Chicago selling liquor, $20M spent annually in Illinois for alcohol, and in one particular shop in Chicago they bring in an average of $2,000 a day for rum.

Her friend Lillie Hayes Waugh lives in India and in a letter describes the Hindu definition of a woman: “That afterthought of God which was sent to bring woe to man!” Willard noted, “That single sentence gives the key to India’s awful degradation.”

Her journal for 1860 notes Lincoln’s election as President. “Hurrah! Under the present system I was not allowed to vote for him, but I am as glad on account of this Republican triumph as any man who has exercised the elective franchise.”

Her friend Kate Jackson takes her on an all-expense-paid two year journey across Europe, then they set up house together upon their return to the States. Probably some good stuff to be uncovered about the pair?

Willard, known as Frank to her friends, determines to become a teacher as her path in life, and is able to achieve independence by earning her living this way. Her sister Mary yearns to make her own way like this, but ends up dying early. Willard teaches at various places then becomes president of the Evanston College of Ladies where she begins to do away with some of the ridiculous rules in place, like the girls needing to be escorted off campus by teachers. She encouraged her students to participate in debates with their (male) peers at Northwestern, and this was approved of by Dr. Haven who said “Here even more than in the recitation room, young men will learn that young women are their peers. It will break down the prejudice against woman’s public speech and work; it will refine the young men and develop intellectual power in the girls.”

The frontispiece to chapter 5: A Tireless Traveler includes a verse from N.P. Willis, “Sleep safe, o wave-worn mariner! Fear not, tonight, or storm or sea–; the ear of heaven bends low to her: he comes to shore who sails with me.” N.P. Willis, of course, was the loathsome brother of Sara Willis Parton (aka Fanny Fern) who gave nothing but discouragement to his more talented sister, refusing to help her publish in his magazine when she desperately needed the money. His words seem so trite and tiresome while Sara’s still sparkle over 150 years later.

Page 253 includes the extensive itinerary of the two years of travel with Kate Jackson: a few weeks in Ireland and Scotland, a month in England, Paris to Geneva to Nijni Novgorod via Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Poland before spending the fall of 1868 in Germany (Berlin, Dresden, Leipsic). Then six months in Paris, a month in Belgium, Holland, another month in Switzerland, several months in Italy, a month in Cairo, then Jerusalem, Palestine, Damascus, Beirut, Greece, Vienna, etc. etc.

While in Paris (Jan 1869), she muses on women’s rights: “I have a mind to indicate here what has much occupied me of late, but what I am not brave enough to execute, perhaps, though, if I were, I believe my usefulness would exceed the measure it will reach in any other line of life. Briefly, it is to study so far as possible, by reading, learning the languages and personal observation, the aspects of the woman question in France, Germany and England, and when I return to America, after two or three years’ absence, and have studied the same subject carefully in relation to my own land, to talk in public of the matter and cast myself with what weight or weakness I possess against the only foe of what I conceive to be the justice of the subject, and that is unenlightened public opinion.”

Still in Paris in 1869, she has a conversation with a French gentleman who seems to have a crystal ball into the future about the United States, “He says that France and England should have helped the South, for America is growing so powerful that, joined with Russia, she will ‘meddle herself’ in European politics one of these days. It is very interesting to listen to the absurdity of these foreigners.”
On her trip up the Nile River, “We came to feel the subtle spirit of the East; instead we feel Egyptian fleas. We came to float musingly along the mystic waters of the world’s most curios river; instead, we go snuffing, snorting, shaking, over its tolerant breast–eyes full of smoke, ears full of discord, noses full of smells from kitchen and from coal-bin.”

She climbs the pyramid of Cheops and is helped along by her Arab guides. “In a moment more I was standing, tremblingly, on the broad summit of the pyramid. Though more dead than alive, I insisted in crawling to the loose rocks piled on the center of the platform, and seating myself triumphantly upon the topmost stone. Taking from my pocket a Jaffa orange (brought with this same intent) I tore it open and buried my parched lips in its juicy pulp. If I were called upon to name the most delectable sensation that ever human palate knew I should refer to the foregoing incident.”

Unfortunately, there has always been a tendency for people to carve their name on things. She admits to having inscribed her name on a skull in the Paris Catacombs, and at the top of the pyramid she again gives into this graffiti. After they scramble down the pyramid, she spots at the entrance to the King’s tomb, in letters several feet long in black paint, “Paul Tucker, of New York,” along with his age, 18 1/2. This, in 1870. I shudder to think what that looks like now.
Back in the United States, she travels around giving lectures, briefly mentioning San Francisco: “Of all places on the globe, go to the California metropolis if you would feel the strong pulse of internationalism. Few have caught its rhythm, as yet, but we must do so if we would be strong enough to keep step with that matchless, electric twentieth century soon to go swinging past. You can almost hear his resonant tread on San Francisco pavements; his voice whispers in the lengthening telephone, saying ‘Yesterday was good, today is better, but tomorrow shall be the red-letter day of all life’s magic calendar.'”

Random bits: Women’s temperance crusade started in 1873 in Hillsboro OH led by Mrs. Judge Thompson. Her visit to Brooklyn to “Kit Burns’ Rat-Pit.” She was inspired by John B. Gough, Neal Dow, Dio Lewis. Not having a source of income she read the Bible verse “Trust in the Lord and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed.” (She then goes for about a year nearly starving before telling the group that yes, she does need a salary after all). Her “baptism” into the crusade in Pittsburgh, kneeling on the sawdust floor singing Rock of Ages among a crowd of “unwashed, unkempt, hard-looking, drinking men.” Her friend Wittenmeyer wrote “History of the Woman’s Crusade” in 1875.

She briefly touches on the split in the temperance group, for and against women’s suffrage. One day while praying, Willard gets a voice, “You are to speak for woman’s ballot as a weapon of protection to her home and tempted loved ones from the tyranny of drink.” Later, “In respect to woman’s ballot we believed it was part and parcel of the temperance movement, one way out of the wilderness of whisky domination, and that any individual, any state or local union ought to have the right to say so and to act accordingly.”

In 1878, she was nominated to the head of the white ribbon regiment of Illinois and so began the home protection campaign, collecting 200,000 signatures on a petition in nine weeks. The names were pasted on a strip of cloth nearly a quarter mile long, taken to the Illinois legislature where it was promptly ignored. The petition was then sealed and placed in the rooms of the Chicago Historical Society, “not to reappear until the day of Jubilee when women vote in Illinois.”