Frances Willard Rides a Bike, 1894

Frances Willard House Museum and Archives

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.

Frances Willard House Museum and Archive

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.”

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3 Responses to Frances Willard Rides a Bike, 1894

  1. Lizzie says:

    I love her adapted dress, especially since she was older, and had spent so many years in skirts sweeping the ground.

  2. Carol in Denver says:

    Again, one of your photos inspires memories. Your photo is from 1894, the year my grandmother was born. I remember seeing a photo of her dressed similarly to those in your photo. She could have used a bicycle instead of moving always at a trot around the farm to do her chores.

  3. Carol Bates says:

    The temperance movement is hard to understand today. But I believe I remember hearing that the temperance movement was inspired, at least in part, by the prevalence of domestic violence.

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