As a retired academic and woman of a certain age, Google is not my first choice for historical research. When I was looking for images of older women on bicycles recently, I turned to my preferred archival and library sites and found nothing. But then I followed the suggestion of reader Anne S. and tried a Google image search. There I discovered many photos of noted feminist activist and temperance movement leader Frances Willard (1839-1898), who took up bicycle riding in her fifties. Not only that, she wrote a memoir about her experience called A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle.
Willard was the driving force behind the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, a social cause that it is difficult to empathize with today. In the late nineteenth century, however, it was linked to a number of different reform movements that still have resonance, including women’s education, women’s suffrage, and fair wages for working women. Willard was a tireless advocate for all of these causes.
Suffering from poor health in her fifties, she decided that bicycle riding would be a means of healthy exercise and cheap transportation. In her memoir, she made many comparisons between bicycle riding and horse riding. She even gave her bicycle a name—Gladys.
Among her many avocations, Willard also believed in dress reform. She was not a fashion radical, like Dr. Mary Walker. Instead, she adjusted her clothing by choosing a shorter skirt. “January 20th 1894 will always be a red letter bicycle day,” she wrote in A Wheel Within in Wheel. “I mounted and started off alone… Gladys was no longer a mystery; I had learned all her kinks, had put a bridle in her teeth, and touched her smartly with the whip of victory.”