Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) by Sue Macy. National Geographic, 2011. Currently available.
Genre: Middle Grade Non-Fiction
Face Value: I am a fan of this cover. It has a vintage feel, but there’s something so irresistibly rebellious about that woman atop her bicycle, blowing that horn, that you just want to pick up the book and start reading. And thanks to that bold title, I couldn’t wait to open the cover and see what was inside.
Does it break the slate? Oh my goodness yes. If you had any doubt that this would be a Slatebreaking book, take a moment to go back and re-read the title. Macy’s thorough coverage of the onset of bicycle fever explores the social, political, and cultural implications of the new trend – all through the lens of its impact on women. I loved that this book introduced me to many adventurous women and showed multiple ways to be a Slatebreaker.
Who would we give it to? This would be a great intermediate book for a 4th or 5th grade nonfiction reading assignment. Unfortunately, I think this one might be hard to get into readers’ hands, because women’s rights and bicycling history are not exactly trendy nonfiction topics. But once you get a reader to pick this up and flip through a few pages, I can guarantee that they will be intrigued. It has scandal! It has speed! It has funny outfits!
Review: Although Charlotte Smith was an outspoken women’s rights advocate of the late 1800s, she had a big problem with the bicycle. “Bicycling by young women has helped to swell the ranks of reckless girls who finally drift into the standing army of outcast women of the United States. The bicycle is the devil’s advance agent morally and physically in thousands of instances,” Smith wrote. Smith is just one of many who saw the bicycle as the potential downfall of women. Throughout Wheels of Change, Sue Macy introduces us to a cast of fascinating characters who are either for or against the bicycle. We meet activists, athletes, advertisers, zealots, and people looking to make a buck. The best part? They’re all real! Reading Wheels of Change was a joyous experience because Macy included photographs, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera to support her narrative – and it reminded me that all of these almost unbelievably interesting people had indeed once lived, and cycled, in the United States.
The sidebars throughout the book illuminate some of the more intriguing people and events. My favorite were the newspaper clippings, including this article, “Mrs. Burrows and Her Bicycle”:
Binghamton, NY., Oct. 9 – The High Street Methodist Church is now in turmoil over the propriety of women riding bicycles. The trouble began when Mrs. Burrows, a widow, purchased a bicycle. She is an active worker in the church.
At a prayer-meeting the other night Samuel Stanley arose and denounced the act of bicycle-riding as unladylike, unchristian and a disgrace to the church. The deacon edified the audience by an attempted illustration of a woman riding a bicycle. The pastor, Rev. John Bradshaw, took sides against the bicyclists.
Mrs. Burrows’ friends threaten to carry the question before the next conference. The Young Women’s Christian Association has established a wheel club in open defiance of those who disapprove of bicycles.
This article captured my interest because it illuminates the little pockets of social turmoil that bubbled up around the United States. I could easily imagine these characters coming to life, and I loved thinking about those proudly defiant friends of Mrs. Burrows starting their own bicycling club. This piece so intrigued me that I used it to spark a drama lesson in the classroom in which we explored the characters of Mrs. Burrows, Samuel Stanley, Rev. Bradshaw, and others who we imagined might be a part of this community. It was a huge hit with the students.
The women we meet throughout this book show that ladies from all walks of life found something to love about the bicycle. Woman who were single or married, young or old became involved in bicycle culture. It was inspiring to read about women who took on the challenge of learning to ride even though it may have earned them some dirty looks or neighborhood gossip. It led me to think about the things I’m too timid to do in my own life, and how I could find the courage to tackle those things. I think young readers might find similar inspiration in these pages.
The visual feast of vintage advertisements, old photographs, and creative typesetting enhance the reading experience. I loved how my eye traveled around the page, taking in information. The book has a vaguely chronological progression, but the primary organization structure is thematic. First we learn about the invention of the bicycle, then all of the social hubbub it caused, then its impact on fashion, and so on. The book ends with a brief but foreboding sentence: “The era of the automobile had begun.” As a reader, I sensed the inevitable end of the reign of the bicycle. With that short sentence, Macy alludes to the great social upheaval that will come with automobile culture – upheaval that will surpass the bicycle in its impact on the U.S. American social system.
It’s clear that Macy has a passion for her subject. In her introduction, she writes about how her childhood bike symbolized the freedom to escape from her neighborhood when necessary. She rediscovered the joy of cycling while writing this book, and her absolute immersion in the subject comes through on every page. Macy’s other titles include a biography of Nellie Bly, a retrospective of women in sports throughout history, and a biography Annie Oakley. Given her previous subject matter, I sense that Macy is an aficionado of Slatebreaking women. She’s a Slatebreaker herself for telling the stories of these amazing women! It is rare for nonfiction to engage me as much as Wheels of Change did, so I feel compelled to track down Macy’s other books about outstanding women. Even if bicycling is not your area of interest, I think readers will enjoy Wheels of Change for its unique and clever perspective on women’s history.