Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way). 2011. Sue Macy. New York: The National Geographic Society.

Genre: Lavishly illustrated informational chapter book

Grade Levels: 4 and up

Features: Historic information; vintage photos, sketches, advertisements, and drawings; resource list for further research; informative timeline interweaving the history of the bicycle with milestones in women’s liberation.

91 pages


When you live as I do in Central Oregon,  it’s all but impossible not to be an avid cyclist. Trails beckon from every river, mountain, and forest—and the scenery is so spectacular it’s literally hard to look away. But I confess it never occurred to me until I read this book that I was literally riding the trails on a symbol of freedom: the bicycle. In the 1880s and 90s, the bicycle changed women’s lives in dramatic ways, giving them power—usually for the first time—to escape unwanted supervision and move independently through the world. This terrified some people, and enraged many others. But female cyclists could scarcely have been happier. They were downright giddy with their newfound freedom. It was about to get better—or worse, depending on your point of view. Quite predictably, the increasing popularity of the bicycle brought about a virtual revolution in women’s fashion. Previously, women had been sweltering and swooning inside corsets that made breathing next to impossible, voluminous petticoats that filled small rooms, and 20-pound skirts that swept the streets, picking up—well, imagine for yourself. Corsets and hoopskirts are not the preferred costume of an athlete, however. And so, despite widespread criticism and disapproval, women who cycled began to dress quite differently, and behave differently as well–to the deep satisfaction of some, and consternation of others. Change was afoot–big change.

In this little slice of history, author Sue Macy tracks the evolution of the bicycle, from the infamous (and dangerous) high wheeler, to the well-named boneshaker to the velocipede and safety (the bike presumably less likely to send you flying over the handlebars). Along the way, we’re treated to numerous anecdotes about historic figures who played a role in the cycling revolution: e.g., Annie Oakley, said to love her bike as much as her horse; Marie Curie, who rode a bicycle on her honeymoon; feminist Amelia Bloomer, who gave her name to an outfit that looks innocent enough now, but raised countless eyebrows in the 1850s; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who saw the bicycle as a force for racial equality as well as women’s rights; and early daredevil racers like Frankie Nelson and Louise Armaindo, who sped around wooden tracks for hours, even days, risking their very lives to thrill crowds.

It’s amusing to discover, through Macy’s account, that bicycling was once considered quite immoral for women (primarily because no one knew where they were going or what they might be up to once they got there)—and also relatively dangerous to one’s health. Even men were urged by their physicians not to take excessively long rides—of say, twenty-five minutes. “Overbicycling” was a common medical diagnosis in the late 1800s, and bicycling was considered less than advisable for young riders whose skeletons had not yet matured (p. 33).

The riveting text (filled with entertaining surprises) is enriched by drawings, photos, ads, and editorials that Macy has meticulously culled from a variety of sources. These allow us to conceptually and visually trace changes in the bicycles themselves, as well as the slow but steady emergence of women from the clothing that had held them captive for so long. This is informational writing with zest and flair: concise, beautifully organized, filled with detail, and highly readable.

In the Classroom

  • Background.  How many of your students ride bicycles? Do you? Talk about where you ride and how far. Has anyone ridden as much as 100 miles in a single trip? This used to be termed a “century” (p. 41), and was considered quite impressive. Also talk about how long bicycles have been around. When did they first come to America. When did they become popular? What did the early bicycles look like—and feel like? Share the photos and drawings on pages 10, 12, 14 and 16, using a document projector if you have one. What do your students notice about these early models? (You may wish to discuss the disparity in wheel size and the fact that women’s pedals were both on the left. Also note that early models had no rubber tires—and were extraordinarily heavy.)
  • Historic background. What do your students know now about the Women’s Rights Movement? Is it an area of interest for them? Talk about some of the things women take for granted now (such as the right to vote) that were not a routine part of life in the 1800s. Can any students name major figures in this movement—or milestone events? How many would have thought of connecting the bicycle to women’s rights? You may wish to do some additional research and/or refer to the chart depicting “Women’s History” and “Bicycle History,” pages 90-91.
  • Personal connections. In Sue Macy’s book, the bicycle becomes a symbol of freedom. Does it have this meaning for your students, too—or for you? What freedoms does a bicycle grant us today that we might not have without it? Talk or write about this.
  • Reading. You will want, as always, to read the book in advance—perhaps choosing a few favorite sections to read aloud and discuss with your students. The first chapter, “Inventing the Bicycle,” is highly recommended. Chapters 2 and 3, “The Devil’s Advance Agent” and “Fashion Forward,” will both spark lively discussions about how attitudes and customs have changed in just over 100 years. Students are likely to find this contrast striking (even hard to believe). Be sure to share illustrations as you go along, taking time to discuss what they reveal about both fashions and beliefs of the time.
  • Topic. What do your students suppose got Sue Macy so interested in the history of the bicycle? (For some hints, see her Introduction, pages 8-9.) Was this a good topic choice for her? Why? How important is it for a writer to hit on a topic that has personal importance? Does Macy’s book prompt your students to think about researching other  topics that have personal appeal for them? Make a list.
  • Exploring themes. Author Sue Macy builds a strong case for the relationship between fashion and women’s rights. Ask students to talk about this—and write about it. What is the nature of this connection? Why did women agree, for so long, to wear clothing that made them uncomfortable and inhibited movement? Is fashion today a matter of free choice—or something imposed on women by others? Have students write their opinions.
  • Original research. What impact does the bicycle have on American lives today? Does it influence the lives of men and women equally? And is it still a symbol of freedom? In what way? Talk about how to set up a study to answer an original question (See www.commoncore.org for emphasis on original research, and see our recent post on Teaching Argument Writing by George Hillocks, Jr., for ideas on setting up an original research study).
  • Details. One of the most striking things about Sue Macy’s book is the volume of information she packs into 91 short pages. As you share various chapters or shorter passages, talk about what you and your students are learning about the bicycle and/or women’s rights. Make a list of particularly outstanding details. Discuss the concept of informational writing as writing that teaches us something new.
  • Word choice. In narrative writing, word choice is often linked with vivid imagery or verbs that create intensity or a sense of motion. In informational writing, we often look and listen for terminology used well. See if your students can identify some of the most memorable terms from Macy’s book. Consider, for example, the boneshaker (p. 16). How did this bicycle get its name? Was it appropriate? What other terms grab your attention?
  • Voice. How would your students describe the voice of this book? Is it personal? Lively? Confident? Comical? Professional? Come up with your own list of words—and discuss the kind of voice you (and they) feel is appropriate or effective in an informational piece.
  • Argument. The Omaha Daily Bee published a list of “Don’ts for Women Wheelers” in its September 1, 1895 edition (See page 38). Share this list with students and discuss it. This list may seem ridiculous to us now—and it’s easy to imagine how it might be ridiculed on a comedy or late-night talk show. But given how very long ago this list was printed, was it ridiculous for the time—or was it common sense in 1895? Do we have any rules or customs now that are likely to be seen as equally provincial at some point in the future? Talk or write about this.  
  • Predictions and inventions. Looking at bicycles like the high wheeler or bone shaker, it is difficult to imagine why anyone purchased them. But of course, that was back when bicycles were new on the American scene, and customers had little with which to compare them. Take a look at a modern-day bicycle. What things do we love about it? What might we wish to be different? What might a “typical” bicycle look like 50 or 100 years from now—or do your students predict that the design will remain essentially the same?
  • Writing and research. Share the Foreword by Leah Missbach Day, co-founder of World Bicycle Relief. Discuss a few of the ways in which bicycles continue to change lives around the world. Encourage interested students to do further research on this. Can anyone connect with a person from another country who is enjoying the freedom of the bicycle for the first time?
  • Presentation. The writer and designers combine color and shape, snapshots and paintings, editorials and advertisements, and much more to create a collage that gives this piece the look and feel of a personal scrapbook. As you work your way through the text, discuss design features you find particularly effective. Which, if any, could your students adopt for their own writing? Which are especially effective? Why?
  • Audience. Given the topic, is this a book intended primarily for girls or women? Would it be—or should it be—equally interesting to males? Why? Talk or write about this.  
  • Argument. Though Macy doesn’t come right out and say it, she implies through various anecdotes and quotations that the bicycle has been one of the most—if not the most—influential invention in promoting women’s rights. On page 81, for example, she quotes the L.A. W. Bulletin and Good Roads magazine of 1898 as stating that the bicycle had given women a “means of securing a degree of freedom and independence that no amount of discussion regarding ‘women’s rights’ would ever have produced.” Do you agree? Is there actual evidence for this level of influence—within this book or from other sources? To answer the question, have students check the source list at the back of the book, or contact bicycle manufacturers, professional riders, bicycling organizations, and so forth, to collect information or commentary. Some may have grandparents or other relatives or family friends who might be interviewed about their own memories involving bicycles—and the changes the bicycle produced.
  • Genre—and adaptation. Most people would classify this text as informational—yet it has a flavor all its own. Perhaps it’s also adaptable to other forms—such as a documentary film or even a series of podcasts. Imagine the book transformed in this way, and discuss some of the decisions that would go into reshaping it.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Part 2 of our “Down the Rabbit Hole” discussion is coming up soon. And shortly, we’ll be reviewing the National Book Award winner Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai. Thanks for stopping by—come often and bring friends. And please remember, for the BEST in writing workshops that feature traits, process, and writing workshop, call 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.