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What a Legendary Woman’s-Rights Advocate Learned from Bicycling

Frances Willard helped give women the right to vote and was the first dean of women at Northwestern. But she didn’t fully discover herself until she got on a bicycle.

Frances Willard discovers the joys of cycling, and of not wearing tight-necked formalwear.   Archive.org

Frances Willard’s legacy is considerable. As president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the National Council of Women in the United States, Willard leveraged the considerable power of the temperance movement towards the right to vote, putting her at the genesis of both the 18th and 19th amendments. For decades, she was the sole woman represented in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, until she was joined by Rosa Parks. Once the president of the Evanston College for Ladies, she became Northwestern’s first dean of women; Willard Residential College, the school’s largest and its first co-ed housing, is named after her. Her home in Evanston is a national landmark.

Towards the end of her life, however, something was missing for “America’s Foremost Woman.” And she found it on what had become a tool, literally, of women’s liberation: the bicycle.

At the age of 53, five years before her death of influenza, Frances Willard learned to ride a bicycle (as I learned from Maya Rodale’s reflective piece in Bicycling magazine). Two years later, she wrote a book about it, A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride a Bicycle, With Some Reflections Along the Way.

Willard’s independence was her birthright, but all that changed when she hit sweet sixteen and entered into what was then, in the mid-1800s, American womanhood.

Born with an inveterate opposition to staying in the house, I very early learned to use a carpenter’s kit and a gardener’s tools, and followed in my mimic way the occupations of the poulterer and the farmer, working my little field with a wooden plow of my own making, and felling saplings with an ax rigged up from the old iron of the wagon-shop. Living in the country, far from the artificial restraints and conventions by which most girls are hedged from the activities that would develop a good physique, and endowed with the companionship of a mother who let me have my own sweet will, 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.”

From that time on I always realized and was obedient to the limitations thus imposed, though in my heart of hearts I felt their un-wisdom even more than their injustice. My work then changed from my beloved and breezy outdoor world to the indoor realm of study, teaching, writing, speaking, and went on almost without a break or pain until my fifty-third year, when the loss of my mother accentuated the strain of this long period in which mental and physical life were out of balance, and I fell into a mild form of what is called nerve-wear by the patient and nervous prostration by the lookers-on. Thus ruthlessly thrown out of the usual lines of reaction on my environment, and sighing for new worlds to conquer, I determined that I would learn the bicycle.

The weighty period prose aside, there’s something very modern about this, in a country where cycling is considered a childish thing. Willard became a woman, and that woman became an urbanite. She spent a lifetime securing the intellectual and political freedoms of women—Willard believed that the equality of men and women in the home was a Christian principle—but in doing so, the individual, physical freedom she had known as a child had waned.

When she went to regain that freedom in service to her health, she was advised against doing so on two wheels, for reasons that will also sound familiar to anyone who’s done so:

Not a single friend encouraged me to learn the bicycle except an active-minded young school-teacher, Miss Luther, of my hometown, Evanston, who came several times with her wheel and gave me lessons. I also took a few lessons in a stuffy, semi-subterranean gallery in Chicago. But at fifty-three I was at more disadvantage than most people, for not only had I the impedimenta that result from the unnatural style of dress, but I also suffered from the sedentary habits of a lifetime. And then that small world (which is our real one) of those who loved me best, and who considered themselves largely responsible for my every-day methods of life,did not encourage me, but in their affectionate solicitude and with abundant reason thought I should “break my bones” and “spoil my future.”

Frances Willard had seemingly spent a lifetime not doing what was expected of her. And it did not come easy. What she took from that to the seemingly simple act of riding a bicycle was not an absence of fear, but an abundance of persistence:

That which caused the many failures I had in learning the bicycle had caused me failures in life; namely, a certain fearful looking for of judgment; a too vivid realization of the uncertainty of everything about me; an underlying doubt at once, however (and this is all that saved me), matched and overcome by the determination not to give in to it.

But a mindset is not all one needs to ride a bike. One also needs, um, clothes. And not clothing in the style of 19th-century women of means and education. So Willard set out to change that as well.

We saw that the physical development of humanity’s mother-half would be wonderfully advanced by that universal introduction of the bicycle sure to come about within the next few years, because it is for the interest of great commercial monopolies that this should be so, since if women patronize the wheel the number of buyers will be twice as large. If women ride they must, when riding, dress more rationally than they have been wont to do. If they do this many prejudices as to what they may be allowed to wear will melt away. Reason will gain upon precedent, and ere long the comfortable, sensible, and artistic wardrobe of the rider will make the conventional style of woman’s dress absurd to the eye and unendurable to the understanding. A reform often advances most rapidly by indirection. An ounce of practice is worth a ton of theory; and the graceful and becoming costume of woman on the bicycle will convince the world that has brushed aside the theories, no matter how well constructed, and the arguments, no matter how logical, of dress-reformers.

A woman with bands hanging on her hips, and dress snug about the waist and chokingly tight at the throat, with heavily trimmed skirts dragging down the back and numerous folds heating the lower part of the spine, and with tight shoes, ought to be in agony. She ought to be as miserable as a stalwart man would be in the same plight. And the fact that she can coolly and complacently assert that her clothing is perfectly easy, and that she does not want anything more comfortable or convenient, is the most conclusive proof that she is altogether abnormal bodily, and not a little so in mind.

From there, Willard brought cycling back to her life’s work, projecting it forward not merely as a tool for the freedom and advancement of women, but as a tool for the equality of men and women.

We saw with satisfaction the great advantage in good fellowship and mutual under standing between men and women who take the road together, sharing its hardships and rejoicing in the poetry of motion through landscapes breathing nature’s inexhaustible charm and skyscapes lifting the heart from what is to what shall be hereafter. We discoursed on the advantage to masculine character of comradeship with women who were as skilled and ingenious in the manipulation of the swift steed as they themselves. We contended that whatever diminishes the sense of superiority in men makes them more manly, brotherly, and pleasant to have about…. The old fables, myths, and follies associated with the idea of woman’s incompetence to handle bat and oar, bridle and rein, and at last the cross-bar of the bicycle, are passing into contempt in presence of the nimbleness, agility, and skill of ” that boy’s sister”; indeed, we felt that if she continued to improve after the fashion of the last decade her physical achievements will be such that it will become the pride of many a ruddy youth to be known as ” that girl’s brother.”

Over a century later, we’re still chasing that thread through the fundamentals of movement, like learning how to throw. We’re still trying to figure out how to make bike clothes and dress clothes meet halfway. And as more people get on bikes, more women are there where Willard was, at the juncture of cycling and culture.


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