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Women’s (Bike) History Month: Frances Willard

It took her three months to get a handle on “Gladys.” Frances Willard, a suffragist and temperance advocate based in Illinois, learned how to ride her bike, “Gladys,” at age 53. But Willard had already made a name on doing things she wasn’t supposed to.


Willard served as the president of Evantston College of Ladies and later as the Dean of the Women’s College when it was subsumed by Northwestern University. She then took the helm as a founding member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

And in her struggle for temperance, she found what she believed to be a great tool: the bicycle.

“She believed that biking was a wondrous social invention, key to keeping young men from the evils of alcohol,” writes April Streeter in her book Women on Wheels.

Willard took up bicycling in her 50s, and she reported that it took her about three months of serious practice to feel comfortable. “At 53, I was at more disadvantage than most people, for not only had I the impedimenta that results from the unnatural style of dress, but I also suffered from the sedentery habits of a lifetime,” Willard wrote, according to Streeter’s book.

“And then that small world of those who loved me best… did not encourage me, but thought I should ‘break my bones’ and ‘spoil my future.’ ” No so, Willard said. “I learned to bicycle when 50… and I think it is one of the best things I ever did,” Willard wrote. “What pleases me is to see other worn-out women take it up, and fine a new lease of health and life thereby. The little book I wrote on the subject has reached thousands of women who, perhaps, might not otherwise have looked with favor on the innovation.”

That little book, A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle, With Some Reflections by the Way was published in 1895. You can read it in its entirety here.

Check back here on Monday for our next profile in our ongoing Women’s (Bike) History Month series!  

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