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Sat Nov 3, 2018, 08:07 AM

Review of "Women on the Move; the Forgotten Era of Women's Bicycle Racing" X-Pst History of Feminism

I bought this book immediately after reading niyad's post in the Bicycling Group about it. I said that I would review it and post that in several forum/groups on DU. Regardless of whether you care about cycling every man and woman should read this book from the point of view of women who changed the perception of women through their athletic ability and sartorial fashion sense. They excelled at what they did and everyone loves a winner. Without further rambling, the review:

Women on the Move: The Forgotten Era of Women’s Bicycle Racing by Roger Gilles.

Perhaps the title should be the Lost Era or the purposely Forgotten era of Women’s Bicycle Racing as there are no official records of their athletic feats on the boards of tracks around the country.

This is a fascinating book following the short era of professional women’s bicycle racing from 1895 to 1902. The safety bicycle was the fad of the day. This was a machine that men and women could use with ease compared to the old high wheels that had so many limitations. Women were soon out riding in the countryside on their bicycles. Then some women took to the boards of hastily built wooden tracks that were more like a saucer, very short and with high banks to race. Some as short as 16 laps to a mile. At first it was considered a curiosity, later they were taken seriously as their speeds rivaled the men they were not allowed to compete against.

Without any official recording how this era of women’s competitive cycling came to light is a story in itself. It all begins in “Big O’s” pizza cafe in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with Sue Stauffacher seeing a framed post card in the restroom. There on the wall was was a framed post card of the Sweet hotel. Sue was intrigued by what she read on the card, In 1897, one of Sweet’s most famous guests was Tillie, The Terrible Swede, ‘fastest bicyclist of her sex.

Ms. Stauffacher an author of children’s books saw the seeds of a book. From her research she learned that the Terrible Swede was Tillie Anderson, who with other top racers came to embody the New Woman - physical and independent, eager to enter the male-dominated public sphere and as such they threatened Victorian notions of strength, beauty, and womanhood. (from the introduction to the book by Roger Gilles)

Ms. Stauffacher’s efforts came to the attention of Alice Roepke, Tillie Anderson’s great niece. Alice Roepke was a treasure trove of material and soon the little children’s book project turned into this book written by Sue’s husband, Roger Gilles.

Eschewing the acceptable blouse and bloomers for women cyclists to ride in costumes considered scandalous - sweater, shorts and tights, and earning astronomical sums for the day. Their records are mostly lost because the League of American Wheelmen refused to acknowledge the women. So much so that any man who competed with them would be suspended.

The story of the women parallels the story of Marshal (Major) Taylor, arguably the fastest man on wheels because of the prejudice against him for being African American and for the women being women challenging the superiority of white men.

These women planted seeds that sprouted into full bloom in feminism. They weren’t the only agents but certainly had a big role to play in women being taken seriously as actual real human beings.

Gilles quotes Susan B. Anthony in his introduction, "Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world."

Just as women today are described as shrill when being emphatic these women were described in unflattering terms for what in men would be considered a strong competitive spirit. This book along with the stories that are coming out about women mathematicians and code breakers need to be best sellers. Our young girls need to have women role models that will encourage them to excel where their talent lies.

Read this book which brings back to life these women who never, never should’ve been forgotten. Ever girl and woman who has benefited from The Terrible Swede and the other pioneers who threw off the cosseting corsets of convention that bound women in restrictive roles - terrible yes, but great indeed.

Or just read this book an be drawn into the excitement of the racing experience. Anyone who thinks women aren't competitive will soon have a different think after reading this book. I enjoyed every word only sad that the book and the era ended.

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