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  • Written by Sue Macy
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  • Written by Sue Macy
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Wheels of Change

How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way)

Written by Sue MacyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Sue Macy

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NCSS—Notable Social Studies Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies 2012

School Library Journal Best Books of 2011

Finalist YALSA Excellence in Non Fiction for Young Adults

SLJ’s 100 Magnificent Children’s Books of 2011

Amelia Bloomer List

Take a lively look at women's history from aboard a bicycle, which granted females the freedom of mobility and helped empower women's liberation. Through vintage photographs, advertisements, cartoons, and songs, Wheels of Change transports young readers to bygone eras to see how women used the bicycle to improve their lives. Witty in tone and scrapbook-like in presentation, the book deftly covers early (and comical) objections, influence on fashion, and impact on social change inspired by the bicycle, which, according to Susan B. Anthony, "has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world."


“Many a girl has come to her ruin through a spin on a country road.” – Charlotte Smith, Brooklyn Eagle, August 20, 1896
It was June 29, 1896, and Charlotte Smith was beside herself with concern for the young women of the United States. Smith, the 55-year-old daughter of Irish immigrants, had spent the last decade and a half fighting for the rights of female workers. But now all of her worries about their health and well-being were focused on one wildly popular mechanical object: the bicycle.
“Bicycling by young women has helped to swell the ranks of reckless girls who finally drift into the standing army of outcast women of the United States,” wrote Smith in a resolution issued by her group, the Women’s Rescue League. “The bicycle is the devil’s advance agent morally and physically in thousands of instances.” Smith’s resolution called for “all true women and clergymen” to join with her in denouncing the bicycle craze among women as “indecent and vulgar.” She set her sights on New York City as the laboratory for her reform efforts, opening a branch of her Washington-based organization there with the goal of ultimately limiting the use of the bicycle by women.
Smith blamed the bicycle for the downfall of women’s health, morals, and religious devotion. Her accusations brought a swift and impassioned response. The Reverend Dr. A. Stewart Walsh, a respected clergyman in New York City and a cyclist himself, wrote a letter to the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle declaring. “I have associated with thousands of riders...and I have not seen among them . . . anything that could begin to approach the outrageous and scandalous indecency of the resolutions of the alleged rescue league.” 
Ellen B. Parkhurst, wife of another New York minister, celebrated the advantages of bicycle riding in Washington’s Evening Times. “Of course I do not believe that bicycling is immoral,” she said. “A girl who rides a wheel is lifted out of herself and her surroundings. She is made to breathe purer air, see fresher and more beautiful scenes, and get an amount of exercise she would not otherwise get. All this is highly beneficial.”
In fact, the impact of the bicycle on the health and welfare of its riders was the subject of a great deal of discussion in the 1890s. At first, the popularity of the safety drew mostly praise as its use seemed to usher in a new era of robust living. Medical literature linked cycling to cures for everything from asthma and diabetes to heart disease and varicose veins, while one study credited the decreasing death rate from consumption (tuberculosis) among women in Massachusetts to their increasing use of the bicycle. Cigar sales took a hit — one industry estimate suggested people were buying as many as one million fewer cigars per day — because cyclists were too busy exercising to indulge in the smoking habit. And in Chicago, bicycling evidently caused a drop in the use of the painkiller morphine. “The morphine takers have discovered that a long spin in the fresh air on a cycle induces sweet sleep better than their favorite drug,” reported the British Medical Journal in November 1895.
Author Q&A

Author Q&A

Q&A with Sue Macy, Author of Wheels of Change
Who taught you how to ride a bike?  What did it feel like when you took your first one for a spin?
My dad taught me how to ride a two-wheeler. (He later taught me to drive a car.) I remember him taking me to a paved, pretty empty parking lot at a nearby park. It was a great feeling to be able to move and balance without training wheels, but I was also worried about falling. I don’t think I did fall, though.
Why are bikes still important to women?
I think that Leah Missbach Day does a great job in the foreword to Wheels of Change of explaining how bicycles are still important to one population of women—those in developing countries who are able to increase their mobility astronomically with the bicycles they received through World Bicycle Relief. But today in the U.S., bicycles are important to everybody. They allow people to do errands without using fossil fuels, to get great cardiovascular exercise, to see their surroundings in a whole new way. My neighborhood isn’t great for cycling—too much traffic and too many hills—but I try to ride at least once a week in the spring, summer, and fall, usually stopping at a nearby farmer’s market to restock on fruits and vegetables. It’s a healthy way to live.
What’s your favorite thing about the very first bicycle models?
I love the ordinaries, which weren’t the first models but rather the ones that started appearing in the 1870s, with the very large front wheel and the smaller real wheel. I love the look of them; they’re such a wonderful evocation of a time in history. When you see one, you’re automatically transported back to that time period. But I wouldn’t want to ride one. When I was visiting Dottie Batho, who contributed more than 20 images to Wheels of Change, I tried to hoist myself onto the seat of the ordinary that she has in her living room and I was scared to do even that. It was her late husband’s bike and she said the first time he rode it, he fell head first over the front wheel and broke both his wrists!
How is the bicycle going to change the future?
I really do think more and more people will go back to the bicycle as a replacement for cars and other types of local transportation and hopefully, towns and cities will start designating more space for cyclists to ride. The efforts of the Portland, Oregon, city government to make bicycling an integral part of daily life have been well-publicized, but even New York City has been installing 50 miles of bike lanes per year with the goal of having an 1,800-mile network of bike lanes by 2030. Cycling is a great way to get around and a great way to keep healthy.
What are kids going to love most about this book?
Wheels of Change is a lively book full of awesome characters and its design is very appealing. I love the stories of the bicycle racers, most of whom had been lost to history until now. Their bravura and tenacity was pretty amazing. I think kids also will love the images—especially the bicycle artifacts from the 1800s—because they will help kids visual what the period was all about. Plus, there are news clips about female cyclists in every chapter, reproduced verbatim, and some of them are wild. My favorite is “Don’ts for Women Wheelers” on page 38.
How has fashion evolved around the bicycle?  Do you think dresses and high heels impede a woman’s ability to feel completely free?
The advent of the bicycles in the late 1800s caused a fashion revolution for women because it made the need for comfortable, safe clothing for cyclists crucial. And once women started casting aside corsets and other oppressive fashion architecture, they realized there was much to be said for simpler clothing. I completely understand this evolution, because as a writer who works from home, I go for comfort over fashion most of the time. High heels are great for elongating one’s legs, but they’re a pain when it comes to moving freely or quickly!



FINALIST 2012 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults
WINNER 2011 Book Links Lasting Connection
WINNER 2011 California Reading Association Eureka! Silver Honor Book
WINNER 2012 NCSS/CBC Notable Children's Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies

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