This review was first published in 2007 on my previous blog.

How I Learned To Ride The Bicycle by Frances Willard

Bicycling recently called this short tome the best book ever written on learning to ride. While they got the title wrong – the book originally bore the title Wheel Within a Wheel; this edition uses a less metaphoric title – Bicycling very well may be correct in their judgment.

Frances Willard’s book was written in 1895, and was intended as more than just an instruction manual. Women in the United States hadn’t the voting franchise, and wouldn’t get it for another two decades. Many forms of employment were closed to them. Society frowned on their participation in certain activities, including athletics. The medical profession’s opinion of women was that they were a weaker sex, prone to hysteria and overstimulation, a view nicely summarized in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” As the narrator of that tale says, “Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.”

Work did Frances Willard good – she was president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union from 1879 until her death in 1898. And as president, she threw herself into an assortment of social causes, ranging from suffrage to labor rights. As the bicycle craze of the 1890s grew, she saw the potential benefits to women of learning to ride. A bicycle is emancipation, in that the rider is in complete control of the bike. Here was something that a woman could control, and what’s more, it brought her out of the house and into the outdoors, engaging in healthy exercise. So Willard, at age 53, taught herself to ride. Her little book describes her lessons, and includes photographs of her astride her bike, Gladys.

As a book that anachronistically can be called a feminist tract, Willard’s tome strays from the path into matters of social justice that are dated, to put it kindly. And she’s often guilty of high Victorianese in her prose. But much of the book remains fresh, particularly when she addresses motivation:

“That which caused the many failures I had in learning the bicycle had caused me failures in life; namely, a certain fearful looking for judgment; a too vivid realization of the uncertainty of everything about me; an underlying doubt – at once, however (and this is all that saved me), matched and overcome by the determination not to give in to it.”

But my favorite quotation is this wonderful sentence: “I finally concluded that all failure was from a wobbling will rather than a wobbling wheel.” I’m constantly reminding myself of that as I attempt to master my bike. And it is for Willard’s insight into motivation that I encourage you to read this book. Fans of history, bikes, and women’s studies will also find this tome fascinating reading.

As I mentioned at the start of this review, Willard’s book is currently available in two different editions. A reprint of Wheel Within A Wheel, under its original title, is available; the edition under review, How I Learned To Ride The Bicycle, includes interesting essays on Willard’s life and how women participated in the 1890’s bicycle boom. And as the book is in the public domain, ebook editions are available for free at sites such as archive.org.

For further information on Frances Willard:
http://www.franceswillardhouse.org