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Wild Women: Crusaders, Curmudgeons, and Completely Corsetless Ladies in the Otherwise Virtuous Victorian Era

Biker Chic: Frances Willard (1859-1898)

The cycling craze of the 1890s rolled across the nation like an 8.5 earthquake, with freewheeling females flying through the streets and disapproving doomsayers collapsing beneath heaps of rhetorical rubble. Not only did the sweaty new breed of scofflaws run the risk of developing pigeon toes and "bicycle eye," it was suggested, but the "unfettered liberty" of bicycling ended to "intoxicate" them to unspecified—though no doubt shocking—acts of immorality. Weighing in on the side of the exercise enthusiasts in 1895 was Women's Christian Temperance Union president Frances Willard, who emphatically did not endorse either intoxication or immorality. She did, however, urge women to take up the two-wheeler, singing its praises in How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle, her personal paean to the pedal. Contrary to popular opinion, Willard soberly stated, there were "high moral uses in the bicycle" and she would wholeheartedly "commend it as a teacher without pulpit or creed."

As the newly fit fifty-three-year-old was the first to concede, she had occasionally tumbled from grace in her effort to master the machine she named Gladys. "A good many people thought I could not do it at my age," she reported; there were dire predictions that "I should break my bones" or "spoil my future." And by her own admission, the erstwhile Wisconsin tomboy (hobbled by hoopskirts and high heels since the age of sixteen) was "at more disadvantage than most, for I suffered from the sedentary habits of a lifetime."

Evidently those torpid tendencies were deeply ingrained indeed, for it took wobbly Willard three months of daily practice, assisted by a corps of muscular aides-de-camp, to steer her "saucy steed" on a straight and narrow course. But on January 20, 1894 (a date she proudly proclaimed her "red-letter bicycle day"), the triumph of woman over machine was complete. "I had learned all her kinks," sighed the self-satisfied scorcher, "had put a bridle in her teeth, and touched her smartly with the whip of victory." From that day on, those who tried to tell Willard that women belonged on pedestals rather than pedals were just spinning their wheels. "The world is wide," wrote the upright cyclist, "and I would not waste my life in friction when it could be turned into momentum."