March 20, 2019

Early wheelwomen and their relentless courage and sense of fun

Behind the Book by
Author Larissa Theule talks about the bogus medical affliction known as "bicycle face" and how it inspired her new picture book,

Born to Ride

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I first read about “bicycle face” around the time my daughter was learning to ride a two-wheel. The term popped up on a number of online news sites and referred to a bogus medical affliction intended to scare people, especially women, away from riding during the bicycle craze of the 1890s. It was a wild story and seemed almost too regressive to be real, even for the time, so I dove into old chronicles to learn more.

I discovered that bicycle face was just one of many alleged bicycle-related maladies. There were countless others, like “bicycle hump” and “bicycle leg.” Bicycle face, it was said, came from the strain of riding and resulted in bulging eyes and a clenched jaw. It was a threat to both men and women but purported to afflict those of a delicate nature (read: women) with greater frequency and to a more serious degree.

This quote nicely sums up the fictitious condition as it pertained to women: “No woman on a wheel has yet solved the problem of self-consciousness; and of all the sad sights that greet the eye that of the woman in baggy breeches plowing her way along the boulevard with a stern, fixed, anxious face betraying apprehension of some unseen danger, combined with the consciousness of the popular scrutiny and comment and sometimes a lurking suspicion that not all may be right with her, is the saddest. In such cases as these, the strain upon the special brain center must be not only incessant but tremendous, and it must of necessity sooner or later produce the bicycle face which the victim must carry to the grave . . .” (From the Chicago Tribune, July 7, 1895.)

The threat of bicycle face was only a sliver of the serious pushback early wheelwomen encountered. Critics also said riding a bicycle threatened to “unsex” women, damaging not only their reproductive organs but their inherent femininity as well, turning them into loose young ladies, disobedient wives and negligent mothers.

Fortunately, what I read wasn’t all misogynistic headlines. Researching bicycle face led me to learn about the many ways spirited wheelwomen flat out ignored religious, medical and patriarchal calls for them to cease riding.

Early wheelwomen loved riding and were good at it. They taught each other to fix their own bikes, established their own magazine called The Wheelwoman, and otherwise had loads of fun socializing, racing and using bikes to make their work easier. They also adjusted their fashion so they could ride unencumbered and look good doing so—hello, short skirts and bloomers!

In writing Born to Ride, I wanted to reclaim bicycle face. I wanted to retroactively turn that silly threat on its head and transform it into something celebratory, as befits bold young readers and riders.

I watched my own young rider as she learned to pedal and coast without a steadying hand on the seat behind her and saw in her face a thousand shades of joy. Riding a bike makes her feel strong and free. That joy and strength is what I hope to have captured in Born to Ride, and in doing so, pay homage to early wheelwomen and their relentless courage and sense of fun.

“To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.”—Munsey’s Magazine, 1896.

For more about the remarkable history of wheelwomen, read Sue Macy’s seminal book Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way).


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Born to Ride.

Larissa Theule

Get the Book

Born to Ride

Born to Ride

By Larissa Theule, illustrated by Kelsey Garrity-Riley
ISBN 9781419734120

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