On Wednesday, the finalists for YALSA’s Award for Excellence in Nonfiction were announced. I thought I would take a look at each of the five titles between now and January 23 when the winner will be announced. Today, I’ll look at Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) by Sue Macy.
Macy begins with a deliciously bold thesis. The mass production of bicycles, beginning in the 1870s, she tells us:
led to the rise of the bicycle, the fall of the horse, the paving of America’s roadways, the dawn of modern advertising, and the development of the automobile. Equally important, it helped American women gain increased independence, better health, freedom from restrictive clothing, and eventually, the right to vote.
Although she doesn’t make this comparison, her core argument has much in common with the traditional view of the rise of teenaged car culture in the 1950s and 60s. As teenagers began to have access to more free time and a new means of transportation, their opportunities for freedom, expression, and privacy grew exponentially, leading to the rise of rock and roll music and eventually the 60s counterculture.
Similarly, according to Macy, 80 years earlier, bicycles gave women new opportunities to exercise their bodies, to travel to distant places, and to be alone with their peers, as well as a renewed devotion to shirking the confinement of Victorian era restrictive dress, in favor of light skirts or bloomers.
Though I’m not convinced that she proves every piece of this thesis, she marshals enough evidence to make the conversation lively, and at the same time sheds light on an extraordinary slice of history which has been largely ignored. Her account of the development of the bicycle alone makes this book worth reading, but the most impressive part of the book is her meticulous attention to the primary sources she has researched.
In an article in The Horn Book earlier this year (unfortunately not available on the web, but see this blog post for a summary and spirited dispute), Marc Aronson argued that we have entered a new era of non-fiction for young people in which authors are not content to simply synthesize secondary sources to make them palatable for children, but are striking out into primary research to create “new knowledge” for youth.
If Aronson is right (and I think he mostly is), Macy’s book is a prime example. She has pored over vast amounts of research–magazine and newspaper articles and editorials, newsletters, pamphlets and brochures, all from the turn of the 20th century–to show her readers the thoughts and attitudes of the people who lived through this era, and how they saw the changes the bicycle was bringing. Most convincing (to me) are her quotations from Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony both citing the bicycle as a key component in achieving equality and freedom for women.
On top of the fascinating history lesson, this is a simply gorgeous book, packed to the brim with reproductions of period photographs, advertisements, editorials, postcards and more. Though I think there are a few loose ends in Macy’s argument, and a chapter on bike racing seems strangely unfinished, this would fit nicely beside the other two winners of the award, Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith and Ann Angel’s Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing. But I’ll have more to say on which book I think should win it all when I get through all five. Stay tuned.
— Mark Flowers, currently reading The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin