Book Review: Women on the Move by Roger Gilles

Gilles, Roger. Women on the Move: The Forgotten Era of Women’s Bicycle Racing. University of Nebraska Press, 2018. Print.

Women on the Move demonstrates that women’s bicycle racing was very popular in the United States during the “bicycle craze” of the 1890s, and deservedly so. It was such a big deal that in many respects it overshadowed men’s racing, despite the fact that only a handful of women seem to have participated. Most often, women competed in the grueling six-day races. These endurance events began decades earlier during the very surprising enthusiasm for “pedestrianism.” When bicycles and vélodromes emerged, audiences no longer wanted to watch people walking for six days; they wanted to see bicycle racing! For the men, six-day bicycle races were not so much competitions as wars of attrition. The men would literally ride as much as possible for six whole days, stopping only to eat and to sleep as little as possible. The women’s events also lasted for six days, but they would ride in heats, each lasting a few hours. This meant the women athletes did not have to conserve energy. Competition was more intense. Additionally, with steeper slopes and sharper turns, the women’s tracks were more dangerous. They had to ride faster than then men: centrifugal force was the only thing stopping them from falling. One journalist compared watching the women’s six-day race to watching marbles spin around a bowl. All this made for an excellent spectator sport. These athletes became very popular and even those who did not make the podium were paid exceptionally well.

In addition to danger, another factor contributing to the popularity of women’s races was the thrill and novelty of seeing women stepping far outside traditional roles, not to mention traditional dress. True, there was an element in the audience fascinated by watching women race in tights. As female athletes today still understand, these women had to cope with a constant scrutinizing of their attire and bodies. But it would be wrong to think exploitation tarnished these events. These women were redefining so much more than what constituted acceptable dress. They reached well beyond what society expected of women in terms of health, strength, aggressiveness, assertiveness, and careers.

Tillie Anderson, the best of the many great athletes of the era. Illustrated by oRMo with permission of Alice Roepke. Please check out Alice Roepke’s amazing archive dedicated to Tillie at http://tillieanderson.com/tillie/

It is worth noting that Gilles did not attempt to analyze his research through any methodological lens. He does not incorporate feminist, sociological, or historiographic theory. Some will find this a weakness. Certainly, this material warrants rigorous theoretical attention. Nevertheless, I like that Gilles just focused on the women and their stories. It just made the book fly and the women in it more alive, which leads me to my final comments.

Women on the Move is such a great read for two reasons. First, Gilles has done the research. I feel quite sure that he gleaned as much information as he could from the journalistic record. Second, he writes well and with enthusiasm. His depiction of the races is exciting to read. You can’t help feeling the intensity of the rivalry between the star athletes.  Reading Women on the Move, you will gain a very thorough appreciation of one of the great and almost forgotten sporting events of the 19th century.