- Women on the Move: The Forgotten Era of Women’s Bicycle Racing by Roger Gilles
For a brief period in the late 1890s, the biggest stars of American bicycle racing were arguably a quintet of women: Tillie Anderson, Lizzie Glaw, Dottie Farnsworth, Helen Baldwin, and May Allen. Known collectively as the “Big Five,” these fearless athletes competed in high-speed races in front of thousands of enthusiastic spectators from Kansas City to Philadelphia. Yet their exploits were quickly and almost entirely forgotten in the ensuing years. Roger Gilles’s excellent new book not only resurrects the golden age of women’s bicycle racing in all of its colorful glory but also makes the case that these cyclists were “America’s first great women athletes” whose exploits captivated audiences and challenged social conventions in fin-de-siècle America (xx).
Women on the Move traces the rise and fall of women’s racing in roughly chronological fashion, from Anderson’s victory in the inaugural Chicago Six-Day women’s race in January 1896 to the sport’s last gasps in upstate New York in 1902. As Gilles recounts, women’s racing emerged during the broader bicycle boom of the 1890s, when millions of men and women took to the roads on the new “safety bicycle,” with its equal-sized wheels, rubber tires and chain-driven gearing. Unlike men’s bicycle racing of the era, which prominently featured endurance events where competitors rode continuously (and often ploddingly) for six straight days, the new women’s races were fast-paced affairs where the competitors jockeyed in tight-knit packs for two or three hours a day on steeply banked wooden tracks at twenty miles per hour or more, sometimes completing individual laps in under eight seconds. The resulting spectacle attracted widespread newspaper coverage and drew huge crowds in major cities. The riders themselves became celebrities who earned impressive sums of money; Anderson, a recent immigrant from Sweden and the greatest cyclist of the era, likely made five or six thousand dollars in 1896, a far cry from the two dollars a week she was earning as a seamstress and laundress before beginning her career (73).
The popularity of women’s racing, as Gilles notes, directly challenged social conventions concerning gender relations and female behavior. The riders were simultaneously lauded for their impressive athletic abilities and judged by the media and crowds alike on the basis of their physical appearance; their racing outfits (form-fitting wool jerseys and riding shorts worn over cotton tights) showcased the female body in ways that were not generally commonplace in late nineteenth-century America (50). Not surprisingly, the races triggered a significant backlash; some pundits and physicians denounced women’s racing as harmful to female health or as a generally immoral activity (119). Perhaps more damagingly, the leading national bicycling organization, the League of American Wheel-men, refused to sanction any women’s races and threatened to suspend male athletes who competed alongside women, offering flimsy justifications citing the purported inferiority and irregularity of races for women. In the face of this official hostility and the subsequent waning of the bicycle boom at the end of the decade, women’s racing ultimately declined in popularity; its last years were marked by an ever-shrinking calendar of races in front of small crowds in rural Ohio and New York. [End Page 88]
Based on an impressive range of contemporary newspaper accounts (including but not limited to those preserved in Tillie Anderson’s own scrapbooks), Women on the Move represents an important contribution to the history of sport, gender, and culture in late nineteenth-century America. The lack of official records about the sport had led historians to assume that women’s racing was at best a marginal phenomenon; Gilles convincingly proves that it was at once a serious athletic activity and wildly popular. His book also restores trailblazing figures like Anderson and Glaw to the limelight; they were arguably the first...