"Wheels of Change," a kids' history of women and bicycles

Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 8:03 PM


How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom

(With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way)

By Sue Macy

National Geographic. $18.95. Ages 12 and up.

A true vehicle of social change, the bicycle went from oddity in 1878 to commonplace by 1895, affecting the place of women in society in ways that were debated by men and women alike. Some, like the crusader Charlotte Smith, sought to protect women's morals, saying bicycle riding lured "young girls into paths that lead directly to sin." Others cited the benefits of vigorous exercise, fresh air and greater freedom of movement. As the wife of a New York City minister put it, "A girl who rides a wheel is lifted out of herself and her surroundings."

In her well researched and wonderfully illustrated history, Sue Macy conveys the profound early effects of the bicycle on American life, from feminine fashion and fitness to religion and politics. She starts with the mechanics, briskly moving from 1817's laufmaschine (running machine) to the hobbyhorse, boneshaker and high wheeler. Women's customary long skirts were downright dangerous on a bike, and soon bloomers and divided skirts came into vogue despite considerable societal uproar.

Macy has put together a fascinating sampling of vintage images to show the power and pervasiveness of bicycling women. By 1896, Susan B. Anthony could already perceive - and applaud - the bicycle's influence: "I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world."

- Abby McGanney Nolan

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