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(Ryan Reed)

Brain Pickings' Top 11 History Books of the Year

The editor behind the site that curates the best content on the web lists the most interesting history books of 2011

Originally featured here in August and excerpted in Smithsonian magazine’s November 2011 issue.

8. WHEELS OF CHANGE

National Geographic’s Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way), which also happens to be one of the year’s best photography, tells the riveting story of how the two-wheel wonder pedaled forward the emancipation of women in late-nineteenth-century America and radically redefined the normative conventions of femininity. (Not to be confused with another excellent tome that came out this year, It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels, which offers a more general chronicle of the bike’s story, from its cultural history to its technical innovation to the fascinating, colorful stories of the people who ride it.)

To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.” ~ Munsey’s Magazine, 1896

A follow-up to Sue Macy’s excellent Winning Ways: A Photohistory of American Women in Sports, published nearly 15 years ago, the book weaves together fascinating research, rare archival images, and historical quotes that bespeak the era’s near-comic fear of the cycling revolution. (“The bicycle is the devil’s advance agent morally and physically in thousands of instances.”)

(Image: © Beth Emery Collection | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org)

From allowing young people to socialize without the chaperoning of clergymen and other merchants of morality to finally liberating women from the constraints of corsets and giant skirts (the “rational dress” pioneered by bike-riding women cut the weight of their undergarments to a “mere” 7 pounds), the velocipede made possible previously unthinkable actions and interactions that we now for granted to the point of forgetting the turbulence they once incited.

“Success in life depends as much upon a vigorous and healthy body as upon a clear and active mind.” ~ Elsa von Blumen, American racer, 1881

Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.” ~ Susan B. Anthony, 1896

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