Frances E. Willard - A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle With Some Reflections by the Way

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How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle - Frances E. Willard and Her Bike Gladys

Dec 9, 2006
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Interesting musings from a 19th Century women's rights activist

Cons:A bit on the short side

The Bottom Line: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle is an interesting historical read, especially recommended for female cyclists.


In 1893, Frances E. Willard took a much-needed vacation in England. During her stay, Willard's host gifted her a bicycle. At 53 years of age, and in failing health, Frances Willard named her bicycle Gladys and set about learning to ride her. Willard's account of this event was originally published in 1895 as A Wheel Within a Wheel. Out of print for nearly a century, it was republished in 1991 as How I learned to Ride the Bicycle - Reflections of an Influential 19th Century Woman.

This revision includes Willard's original musings about learning to ride her new two-wheeled friend, as well as Edith Mayo's (Do Everything: The Life and Work of Frances Willard) short biography of Willard. Lisa Larrabee (Women and Cycling: The Early Years) also tacks on a short look at the effect cycling had on women of the era.

Frances Willard was a political activist and champion of women's causes. As president of the WCTU (Women's Christian Temperance Union,) she worked tirelessly for alcohol reform, viewing its consumption as a threat to a family-based way of life.

Willard's story is filled with her determination to master Gladys. As we read, she muses over concerns such as road conditions, cornering, and crashing. As befitting of such a determined, strong-willed woman, Willard wrecked her bike only once during her learning period, and vowed never to do so again. "Let me remark to any young woman who reads this page that for her to tumble off her bike is inexcusable," she wrote.

Because she spent her life attempting to create a more-equal lifestyle for women, Willard saw the bicycle as a means for young women to obtain a small bit of independence. She also hoped that by cycling, women could bring about change in the restrictive dress code endured at the time - after describing the small changes she made to her riding wardrobe, she wrote, "it was a simple, modest suit, to which no person of common sense could take exception." Willard wasn't asking for radical change, just some practicality and comfort.

At a mere 97 pages, How I learned to Ride the Bicycle is a quick, satisfying read. I found it interesting for a couple reasons: it was kind of neat to read words written over a hundred years ago, about learning a skill that I utilize almost daily, a learning that was a basic rite of passage for me as a small boy. Also, Frances Willard realized that learning to ride a bike could have an impact far greater than merely as a way to have fun - that by doing so, she could possibly help gain a small amount of freedom for the women of her time. I'd definitely recommend How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle to cyclists - particularly female cyclists - as well as to anyone wanting a quick historical read.


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