Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Lookout, Eno, Bull City), and a pair of well-regarded literary magazines out of UNCW, it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literary publishing. More so, it shows the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way)
By Sue Macy
National Geographic Books, 2017
Page count: 96
I admit: I initially viewed this title with a little bit of skepticism: “Wheel of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way)” seemed a bit too pat and a bit too perfect. Multiple factors converged (as so often happens) that made me pick up this book: one of my dear friends decided to commute by bicycle through 2020, and it is the centennial of women’s suffrage.
“Why not?” I figured.
Goodness gracious, am I glad I did.
This is not what I anticipated; it is so much better!
With this title, there was every possibility of a dry academic paper that got turned into an even drier, book-length academic manuscript. But National Geographic took the wheel and has ensured this captivating popular history comes to life through vivid storytelling, sidebars packed with nuggets of info offering additional insight, and of course, the great production design National Geographic brings to every project. I mean, for well over a century, they consistently raised the bar on visual storytelling. This book is no exception: great photography, archival documents and images, and phenomenal layout.
The thrust of the book is a look at how the bicycle democratized access to transportation for everyone—and how women especially benefited from the newfound freedoms it offered. During the 19th century, the horse still was the major form of personal and family transportation for most. Now, maintaining a horse is an expensive proposition: food, shelter, medical care and accoutrements all add up pretty quickly. On the other hand, the bicycle is a one-time purchase you never have to feed. For factory workers, school teachers and nurses—who could never dream of owning or providing for a horse—the bicycle was a game-changer. Suddenly, transportation that had been beyond the reach of all but the wealthy became accessible.
The opportunity was felt across economic classes and afforded opportunities for young women who had not previously been able to operate beyond the narrow confines of their homes. Obviously, not everyone was pleased with this turn of events. One element I was surprised to discover was the serious public backlash to bicycling initially, and women bicycling especially. Ministers and doctors engaged in public campaigns to warn of the evils of letting women ride bicycles. School boards even passed resolutions prohibiting teachers from cycling.
Somehow the nature of the bicycle seat, and the possibility of women straddling a bicycle, became the object of serious medical discussion. Concerned parties worried aloud about the possibility of damaging women’s reproductive organs—or possibly exciting women’s sexuality (the greater horror, of course). I was not surprised at the correlations drawn between the changes in women’s attire in the second half of the 19th century and the increased focus on functionality. The crinoline was a cage—literally a wire cage—that made it virtually impossible to do anything except stand still and look pretty.
‘“At 16 years of age, I was enwrapped in the long skirts that impeded every footstep,” remembered Frances Willard, who in 1895 wrote a best-selling account of how she learned to ride a bicycle at age 53.
The shift to functional clothing—shorter, slimmer skirts and in some cases even divided skirt—permeated other parts of women’s lives. Eventually, it led to clothing that allowed for daily functionality.
I was surprised at the number of women who applied for patents for items related to cycling. I also had no idea that cycling literature was a legitimate sub-genre in the 19th century. Apparently, the motif centers around women who love to cycle and the men who have to overcome their prejudices to love them anyway. I also had never put together (but in retrospect should not have been surprised by) the notion that increased access to transportation meant increased opportunity for political organizing. To wit: Bicycles made rallies, marches, and political meetings possible for women in a way they had never been before.
I am trying to work up my nerve to cycle on the streets of Wilmington again. So much of my early life centered around my bicycle and the world that opened up, not to mention the freedom it provided. But the increase in traffic and lack of substantive cycling infrastructure makes me hesitant. When I read “Wheels of Change,” my heart genuinely swelled with pride for what mighty change the bicycle wrought. This might be the perfect book to kick off a reading list for the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage (and don’t forget to vote; primaries are March 3 in NC).