Monday, November 14, 2016

Frances Willard, woman cycling pioneer



Frances Willard—how did I not know about you?!

During last months Open House Chicago I visited the Frances Willard house in Evanston. A little cottage with gingerbread trim. Fairly humble—even though I suspected it was 2 houses, next to each other, retrofitted to be one slightly bigger residence. Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard was an American educator, temperance reformer, and women’s suffragist. Her influence was instrumental in the passage of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Thus we have Frances to thank for the right to vote.
The tour guide talked about matching the wallpaper and carpeting to look authentically Victorian. I had about 10 places I wanted to hit in Evanston and was only half through that list, so I began to glide into and out of rooms on the first floor (second floor was not on the tour). In a dining room/study I saw pictures of 1886 Frances astride a bike with her billowing skirts. What! you say! A progressive woman cyclist. I was suddenly in love with Frances Willard.

Keep in mind that at this time a woman’s place was in the home. Women were bound by how far they could walk—and if going far were usually escorted. They needed a companion. Suddenly 2-wheeled transportation, the bicycle, intervened. Women were able to go further afield, explore. They even began to fashion and wear attire that permitted them to easily straddle a bicycle. The bike craze of the 90s (1890s) was largely due to women. Women were learning how to ride and buying bicycles. A favorite book that helped me adjust to switching schools in the middle of 3rd grade is The Wonderful Year by Nancy Barnes where the main character, a young girl) gets a bicycle. The freedom and joy of being able to go under her own power and discover the world, the world being the country roads around her, was paradise. Anyway, that book was pivotal in helping me accept a huge life-change.

Back to Frances. Frances went bike crazy. She penned A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle, 1895. Mind you, she only learned to ride a bike at age 53. Her achievement was symbolic of how she set out to conquer the inequalities she saw around her. Nothing was going to hold her back.

Willard named the bike “Gladys” and over the period of three months, and with several teachers, she learned to ride. Inspired by the will to show the women in her organization what they were capable of, Willard wrote a book about her experience with “Gladys” called How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle. It was published in 1895, only three years before her death. In her book Willard testifies that “all failure was from a wobbling will rather than a wobbling wheel,” the “will (being) the wheel of the mind”. (Willard, 31)

Thank you Frances Willard. You are my hero and a true inspiration—from a woman age 57 who had to conquer her own fears while doing a JOGLE this past fall.

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