Over the Alps on a Bicycle by Elizabeth Robins Pennell Available for Kindle

Over the Alps on a Bicycle, www.sheilahanlon.com

Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s 1898 book Over the Alps on a Bicycle, illustrated by her husband Joseph Pennell, is now available on Kindle. This edition was “re-mastered” so to speak as an e-book by Cathy Ryan for Eltanin Publishing from the original print copy.

My introduction to the new edition explains the significance of the book and provides a biographical sketch of the author, with details of her opinions about cycling and how her rides fit into the politics of the late nineteenth century world. There is a bonus article at the end of the book, Pennell’s 1894 essay “Cycling” from Lady Greville’s Ladies in the Field: Sketches of Sport.

Over the Alps on a Bicycle tells the story of Anglo-American couple Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s six week journey across ten of the highest passes in the Alps. Their trip was taken at a time when cycling was still a relatively new pastime for women and no other woman had attempted to ride this record setting Alpine route. As Pennell herself noted, “if the name of the first man to climb the Alps with his bicycle is disputed, I propose to immortalize the name and adventures of the first woman.”

You can read about the Pennell’s adventures by downloading Over the Alps on a Bicycle from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bicycle-illustrated-Elizabeth-Robins-Pennell-ebook/dp/B00OVNF4SA for UK readers. If you’re in the US, go to http://www.amazon.com/Bicycle-illustrated-Elizabeth-Robins-Pennell-ebook/dp/B00OVNF4SA There is a small price of about £1.50, profits from which go to Eltanin. It’s £1.50 well spent as it’s a very nice edition and a highly readable narrative.

Over the Alps on a Bicycle would make great holiday reading, especially for those of you embarking on cycle tours of your own!


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Imperial Bicyclists: Women travel writers on wheels in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century world

Pennell and Workman Portraits

Early one morning at the end of August 1884, Elizabeth Robins Pennell and her husband Joseph Pennell strapped their luggage to their tricycle and wheeled out of Russell Square before anyone else was stirring. They headed south toward London Bridge, cutting through thick fog and passing a policeman carefully testing every door on his last rounds as they made their way through the quiet streets. Just beyond Borough, they stopped briefly at the corner where the Tabard Inn had once stood, which was made famous by Chaucer five hundred years earlier as the assembly place for his nine and twenty pilgrims travelling to Thomas Becket’s shrine. This auspicious spot was the starting point of the Pennells’ own Canterbury tale, the first of many adventures a-wheel and the start of a series of popular travel books recounting their cycling excursions throughout England and Europe.

A decade later, another couple, Fanny Bullock Workman and William Hunter Workman made a name for themselves as travel writers documenting similar but more ambitious bicycle trips to remote destinations in Europe, the Sahara and India. Who were the pioneering women cyclists and writers that made up one half of each of these couples, what motivated them to embark on these journeys, and how did their experiences differ over the decade that divided them? This post ccompares two early cycle-tourism excursions taken by these remarkable women and their husbands; the Pennell’s Canterbury pilgrimage and the Workman’s tour of Iberia, and considers how they reflect their perceptions and politics relating to the world at home and abroad, especially in the case of the status of women.

Elizabeth Robins Pennell (shown left above) and Fanny Bullock Workman (shown right above) share many characteristics in common, though they existed independently of each other. Both were Anglo-Americans who grew up in North America as part of affluent families but spent much of their adult lives in Britain and Europe. Pennell and Workman were born 1855 and 1859 respectively, so were of a similar age, though Pennell’s travelogues date earlier than Workman’s. Both were deeply engaged with the intellectual culture of the day, Pennell through her work as a biographer and host of literary salons, and Workman through her scientific association with groups such as the Royal Geographers Society. They also similarly identified with early feminism and the women’s suffrage movement, and struggled throughout their lives to prove that they were equal to men. Their accomplishments as cyclists, writers, and intellectuals demonstrate how they worked towards equality in their own lives, and set an example for other women through their pioneering exploits as to what they could achieve by refusing to accept the gender conventions of the day.

Pennell, Curiosity on both sides www.sheilahanlon.comThe first of the two cycle-tourists to set out a-wheel was Elizabeth Robins Pennell. Born 21 February 1855 in Philadelphia, she was sent to a convent school at age 8 following the death of her mother. She remained at the school until age 17, though she ultimately rebelled against the life expected of a Catholic woman. Her Uncle Leland’s work as an author inspired her to take up writing. Her first book was a biography of feminist icon Mary Wollstonecraft published by William Godwin, Wollstonecraft’s widower, a subject choice indicative of her early commitment to women’s rights. It was through her involvement with periodicals that she met her husband to be Joseph, a Quaker who was also shaking free of family pressure to take up a respectable profession by going the route of artist. Elizabeth considered Joseph to be her intellectual equal from the start, and soon they were collaborating as writer and illustrator. By 1884, the pair was married and had landed a joint commission from The Century for a travel piece, a prospect which would inspire their first piece of cycling-literature.

Elizabeth Robins Pennell was among the first women to take up cycling when she learned to ride in the 1880s. In an article entitled “Cycling” for Lady Grevilles’ book Ladies in the Field: Sketches of Sport, a collection of essays on everything g from tiger hunting to punting published in 1894, Pennell wrote, “I remember my first experience in 1884, when I practiced on a Coventry ‘Rotary’ in the country round Philadelphia, and felt keenly that a woman on a cycle was still a novelty in the United States. I came to England that same summer, but the woman riders whom I met on my runs through London and the Southern Counties, I could count on the fingers of one hand.”  She and Joseph invested in a Humber tandem tricycle in London, which they took on their early adventures. Later, when two wheel models became standard during the craze, they switched to individual bicycles.

Pennell knew her bicycles well. Pennell noted in her piece for Ladies in the Field that after years of improvements to tricycles to make them suited for women and better machines overall, “then came the greatest invention of all, the Woman’s Safety.” She even went so far as to consider the Sparrow women’s high wheeler of the 1880s, a machine similar to the American Star with the large wheel at the back and smaller pilot wheel out front, an arrangement she appreciated but critiqued noting “the awkwardness of mounting and dismounting made it impractical. In an article directed at youth called “Cycling” to St Nicholas magazine, she extolled the virtues of cycling compared to other sports, especially as a source of fresh air and escaping from the city to the countryside, declaring it the best form of transport for sightseeing. She recognized the double standard for boys and girls, suggesting that boys take up the penny farthing, adding “If I were a boy I would ride nothing else,” but then going on to say Safety bicycles were best for girls and women, and encouraging them to practice riding, mounting, and wear sturdy grey cloth costumes for practicality and modesty.

A Canterbury Pilgrimage Title PageThe Pennell’s first trip was diarized in A Canterbury Pilgrimage. The Pennells had originally intended to ride through Italy sketching Tuscan cities following Laurence Sterne’s route from his 1765 book as part of their commission for The Century magazine. When that trip was postponed due to the cholera outbreak that swept through Europe, they settled on the trail of Chaucer’s pilgrims as an alternative route on a literary theme. The final piece was dedicated to Robert Louis Stevenson, as “a record of one of our short journeys on a tricycle, in gratitude for the happy hours we have spent travelling with him on his Donkey.” The couple’s literary interests were a central organizing principle behind this and their other cycling travelogues. From the Tabard Inn where we last left the couple in the introduction to this article, they Pennells continued down the Old Kent Road then on to Deptford, West Greenwich, and over the bridge at Crayford. In Kent, the narrative turned from scenery to the condition of the people, noting poor women and children at work hop picking and an increase in tramps. The Pennells spent the first night in Rochester at the CTC headquarter in the Queen’s Head. On Day Two, they covered Rochester to Chatham and on to Sittingbourne, Rainham where they settled down at an inn, pleased with themselves for having ridden so well over the course of the afternoon.

Just as the landlady laid the table and offered them a shandy-gaff, their peace was interrupted by a short balding man in a CTC uniform. Rushing through the door, he demanded “Are you the lady and gentleman that came in on the tandem?” Once they confirmed that they were indeed that couple, he went on at length about how he detested the machine, and described his own near death experience on one steered by his wife, not to mention the constant chaffing he endured from passer-byers on the road, adding “women are headless things, and easily frightened.” The sentiments shared by this balding CTC member were just the tip of the iceberg as far as negative attitudes towards women cyclists that the Pennells would encounter on later trips. Finally, leaving the bizarre encounter at the CTC headquarter behind them in Rainham, the pair reached their destination on Day Three:  Thomas Becket’s shrine.  ”We stood in the holy place for which Monk and knight, Nun and Wife of Bath, had left husbands and nunnery, castle and monetary, and for which we braved the jests and jeers of London roughshod, and toiled over the hills and struggled through the sands of Kent.”

The Daily News called A Canterbury Pilgrimage “the most wonderful shilling’s worth modern literature has to offer.” The Pennells had hit upon a winning formula, one they would repeat in later books, with their combination of travel narrative, witty commentary, and evocative sketches of the landscapes they passed through.  Once the cholera epidemic had abated, they climbed on their trusty tricycle and toured Italy, an eventful trip beginning in Florence and culminated in their arrest for scorching down the Corso in Rome, as recorded in An Italian Pilgrimage. They then sold the tricycle, paid the fine, and settled in Rome for four months. In 1888, the pair published Our Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, again making the trip by tricycle though the pair had by then also started to ride bicycles. To Gipsyland, published in 1893, traced the couple’s journey to Eastern Europe, this time on bicycles with Elizabeth riding the Marriot and Cooper “Ladies Safety” that she purchased in 1891.

The Pennells cross St Gotthard Pass, ItalyThe Pennell’s final cycle-travelogue, Over the Alps on a Bicycle, published in 1898 for a popular audience, documented another adventure on two wheels and brought attention to Elizabeth’s record setting accomplishments as a lady cyclist. On this trip, the couple covered up to 108 miles per day, and crossed ten of the highest Alpine passes in six weeks. Edward Laroque Tinker commented in The Pennells, his 1951 biography of the couple that “This was no mean feat in those days when the female was not given to athletics and a woman on a wheel was looked upon askance. Elizabeth did not, however, originally set out with record breaking in mind, noting in her earlier contribution to Ladies in the Field noting that she was not a fan of record breaking by men or women and that while she may have broken records in the course of her rides she prized cycling for pleasure over racing, adding “the truth is, that, while every racing event is chronicled far and wide in the press, the tourist accomplishes her feats without advertisement, solely for the pleasure of travelling by bicycle.” By the time she embarked on her ride through the Alps, she had changed her opinion somewhat, noting “if the name of the first man to climb the Alps with his bicycle is disputed, I propose to immortalize the name and adventures of the first woman.”

Pennells, PerugiaOne feature of the Pennells’ narrative that stands out is their social commentary about the people and living conditions they encountered along their travels. This first becomes apparent in the description of poor women and children hop picking and the presence of much maligned tramps in Kent. In rural Italy, they wrote about the quaintness of peasant life, passing “wagon after wagon, piled with boxes and baskets, poultry and vegetables, and sleeping men and women,” priests in black robes, women doing their laundry in the stream, little girls in kerchiefs plaiting straw, a lady swineherd, and families picking chestnuts in shady groves. The status of local women and their reactions to a fellow woman on a bicycle was something Elizabeth paid particular attention to. Her descriptions of women are reminiscent of the makings of maternal feminism. Just outside Florence, a nun covered her face when the cyclist neared her on the road as though she “though is a device of the devil,” whereas a female innkeeper in Empoli who had never seen a tricycle asked an abundance of questions. In Foligno, people refused to make way for the tricycle, and “one woman in her stupidity or obstinacy walked directly in front of the machine, and when the little wheel caught in her dress, though no fault of ours, cried ‘Accident evoi!’” and seemed to wish an accident on them.  In Albergo Marzocca, the reception to cyclists was better, though “as friendly as these people were, they were stupid.”

A lack of lady cyclists on the continent is often cited by the Pennells as evidence that they are travelling in underdeveloped countries compared to Britain or the US, especially in regards to the status of women and condition of the family. The contrast between women at home and abroad was also a subtle reminder that Elizabeth herself was doing something daring and liberated. While waiting for a boat to take them around an Alpine lake, the Pennells met two American women on a bicycle tour, the only lady cyclists they would encounter on the entire trip until the last leg back to Calais where they were joined by a German “frau” in knickerbockers on her way to Lake Como carrying a pistol and sketchbook who Elizabeth assessed as not a serious cyclist. The Pennells consistently position themselves as superior to the people they encounter, noting their naivety, unenlightened life styles, and insults directed at cyclists as evidence of cultural inferiority, often in a tone that is less than flattering of their own Anglo-American privilege.

Workman, ClimbingThe second of our cyclists, Fanny Bullock Workman, four years’ Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s junior, was born to a wealthy Worcester Massachusetts family in 1859. Her father was a successful business man and Republican Massachusetts governor, which meant Fanny was afforded the best education money could buy, including finishing school in New York. In his 2012 book Game Faces: Five Early American Champions and the Sports they Changed, Thomas Pauly suggested her thirst for adventure was evident early in life, and that she “chafed at the constraints of her privilege.” She took up travel after graduating, living in Paris and Dresden and writing adventure stories about debutante girls running away to Europe with handsome young suitors, undoubtedly something she fantasized about doing herself.

In 1879, she returned to the US, where she met William Workman, a physician 12 years her senior who she married in 1881. William introduced Fanny to mountain climbing, which she excelled at. American alpine clubs in this era welcomed female members and the pastime fit with the new woman image that Fanny identified with. In 1889, the couple relocated to Europe due to William’s poor health, a move Fanny certainly would have endorsed. Substantial inheritances from both of their families meant that they could afford to travel and pursue alpine climbing, often with an entourage assisting them.  Their daughter Rachel, born in 1883 was soon big sister to Siegfried, born in 1889. Fanny never embraced motherhood and felt it cramped her style as a writer and adventurer. Pauly noted that after having children Fanny “aggressively pursued alternative identity, one that liberated her from the conventional responsibilities of wife and mother.” She embraced the bicycle as a way to achieve this.

Workman with bicycle www.sheilahanlon.com While the Pennell’s work was literary in its tone, richly descriptive, and illustrated with Joseph’s sketches, the Workmans’ fashioned themselves as serious contributors to scientific knowledge and used photographs to document their trips. The content of their books advanced from adventure journalism with personal anecdotes in early books to more rational scientific and cartographic studies in later works. The pair tended to write their sections separately, which they dedicated to each other. The resulting cycle-travelogues are dense with historic, scientific, and anthropological detail, such as the history and architecture of the Alhambra, analysis of glaciation in the Himalayas or vivid descriptions of the costumes worn by villagers on the Indian Plain. This writing style fits into the popular travel writing style of the day with its mix of adventure, travel narrative, and personal diarizing with an additional emphasis on cultural and scientific observations. Fanny in particular strove to have her research and writing recognized by the Royal Geographic Club and other Alpine societies, so she consciously adopted a rational and informative in voice. After years of resistance, she eventually became the second woman, after Elizabeth Bird, to address the Royal Geographical Society and the first to lecture at the Sorbonne. Fanny was highly competitive, not just men but also with her female contemporaries. When Annie Peck claimed a new altitude record in 1908 by ascending Peru’s Nevado Huarascan, therefore bettering Workman’s 1906 record set at Pinnacle Peak in the Himalayas, Fanny challenged the claim and hired a survey team at her own expense to prove Peck’s climb was less than her own, thereby retaining the record.

Workman, Algeria www.sheilahanlon.com As cycle-tourists, Fanny and William started big. Their first cycling trip, the subject of Sketches A Wheel in Modern Iberia published in 1897, was a 2,800 mile trek across Spain in 1895, a contrast with the smaller jaunt from London to Canterbury that the Pennells started out with. The same year, they travelled through North Africa as documented in Algerian Memories. Also different was their choice of machine—while the Pennell’s beginner bike was a tandem tricycle, the Workmans set out on steel frames, rubber tyred Safety bicycles, each carrying 20 pounds of luggage. One of the bicycles proved unsound, and had to be traded half way through the trip, and both were prone to punctures on the rough roads of Spain. The pair averaged 45 miles per day overall and up to 80 miles on some days. Alpine climbing and mountaineering were mixed into the trip, with the couple often leaving their bicycles behind to walk up peaks, such as those clustered with monasteries above Monserrat. Their account of the journey describes their everyday experiences, while filling in detail about the history of the places they visit, the nature of people encountered, and the geography of the landscapes they traveled through. Not all their experiences were positive. One day, a muleteer angry that the Workman’s bicycles had spooked his animals, tried to bar their way and threatened them with a mattock with a heavy handle and an iron blade. “When he came within about ten feet,” Fanny wrote, “seeing that something more than words was necessary, we drew our revolvers and covered him. He retreated, and the cyclists carried on down the road, revolvers in hand.

The Workmans’ encounters with people reveal a great deal about what it was like to be Anglo-American tourists from a privileges background travelling in foreign lands and how the Workman perceived themselves and others. The local people described in Sketches A Wheel tended to be rural peasants observed at a distance and described in naive terms, village inhabitants interacted with only fleetingly and often with an element of cultural misunderstanding on both party’s accounts, and those serving them at hotels. Observations about women are particularly interesting. One inn mistresses is described rather crudely as an oily Spanish women. The Workmans were shocked when Fanny was barred entry to Corpus Christi chapel, Valencia to see the baroque painter Francisco Ribalta’s altarpiece because her head wasn’t covered by the traditional black mantilla that most women wore, a sure sign of the low status of women in late-Victorian eyes. In stark contrast with Fanny’s own fearlessness as an explorer, Spanish women come across as terrified of anything new, but possessed of a child like curiosity. At one point in the mountains, women doing laundry scurry away and hide when they see Fanny and her machine. Near the end of their trip on a downhill slope leading to Zaragoza, a town where the people, “notably the women, stared like cattle” Fanny noted “a woman with four frightened children clinging to her skirts stood outside and watched our approach.” They bluntly remark on the “backwardness” of the people of Aragon. If the Workman’s estimation, the Spanish come across as a semi-exotic people lacking refinement, with the men occasionally brutish, women timid, and all lacking intelligence.

The Workmans’ subsequent cycling trips are recorded in Algerian Memories: A Bicycle Tour over the Atlas to the Sahara in 1895 and Through Town and Jungle: Fourteen Thousand Miles A-Wheel Among the Temples and People of the Indian Plain (1904). Though they made a significant contribution to cycling-journalism, climbing remained Fanny’s preferred pastime and after 1898 she shifted her focus back to alpine exploration, making a remarkable eight excursions into the Himalayas over the next few years and writing about them in books such as In the Ice World of the Himalayas in 1900 and Two Summers in the Ice-Wilds of Eastern Karakoram: The Exploration of Nineteen Hundred Square Miles of Mountain and Glacier in 1916. Her later books were to have an even greater focus on scientific detail as she continued to seek recognition from alpine societies, as well as anthropological observations, many deeply orientalist, as she met and recorded the lives of people living on the very edge of empire.

Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Fanny Bullock Workman both identified with the strains of feminism characteristic of their era, but expressed their political ideals in very different ways in their writing and public personas. One thing they shared in common was their attitude to dress, a critical issue in the gender politics at the time. Though rational dress was beginning to catch on for outdoor sports in the 1890s-1910s and Workman and Pennell recognised it as a superior garment for cycling and climbing, they both chose to wear skirts rather than knickerbockers, thereby retaining an appearance associated with respectable femininity. Pennell’s work dates to the pre-organized suffrage era, when cause-specific feminist groups were strong but the campaign for the vote had not yet materialized as the dominant movement. Her writing is not overtly feminist, despite the fact she clearly challenged prevailing gender conventions through her cycling adventures. This is a stark contrast with contemporary works such as Frances Willard’s Wheel within A Wheel: How I Learned to Ride A Bicycle which positions mastering a bicycle as a step towards women’s equality, or Maria Ward’s Bicycling for Ladies which actively encouraged women to seek independence through cycling. Pennell’s work champions her accomplishments as a woman, an individual, and a wife and presents a highly readable and personal account of her travels in a style that would have appealed to a wide audience. While her feminist instincts may have inspired her pursuits, a heavy feminist polemic would not have served her purposes as a popular author and pleasure cyclist.

Workman Votes for Women www.sheilahanlon.com Workman’s dedication to feminism and the suffrage campaign, however, is readily apparent in her work, a reflection of the prominence women’s rights had risen to over the decade that divided her writing from Pennell’s. Throughout her life, Workman battled for recognition by the male-dominated climbing and scientific communities. The fact that American alpine clubs encouraged women to join, unlike their European counterparts, meant that Fanny would have been exposed to other liberated women on the mountainside in her youth. Later when the women’s suffrage movement gained momentum, she aligned herself with the WSPU. In 1912, she was photographed atop a 21,000 foot plateau in Karakoram holding an issue of “Votes For Women” magazine, a photograph she later used as one of her book covers, a bold political statement leaving no doubt about her belief in women’s rights. In her cycle-travelogues, Workman frequently commented on the oppression and deplorable treatment of women she encountered abroad, such as in the powerless group of women she met in the harem she visited in Algerian Memories. A commitment to women’s rights was part of the public identity that Workman cultivated and feminist aspirations were linked to her achievements and aspirations as a cyclist, climber, and amateur scientist.

The Pennells and Workmans’ style of cycle-travel writing fit into the genre of travel writing popularised in the late-nineteenth century West. Other cycle travel publications dating to the time included Frank Lenz’s Around the World with Bike and Camera (1892) published before the cyclist mysteriously vanished abroad and Thomas Steven’s Around the World by Bicycle Vol 1&2 (1887) about his journey by penny farthing. All presented riveting road stories that mixed personal anecdotes, descriptions of landscape, informative details about the significance of the places visited, and descriptions of people in far off lands together into highly readable books that would have been popular with armchair adventure seekers back home. What Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Fanny Bullock Workman add to the genre is an element of feminist critique, though often subtle, which speaks volumes about the changing place of daring women in modern Britain and their perspectives on the status of women in places that did not share the advancements in progress that they had benefitted from back home. In the decade that divided the Pennell and Workman’s first cycle trips, taken in 1884 and 1895 respectively, women’s rights developed into a mainstream discussion, a factor which is reflected over their writing careers such that Pennell observes inequality while avoiding a distinct feminist polemic whereas Workman openly aligned herself with the women’s rights and the women’s suffrage movement.

While this post has considered a selection of the Pennell and Workman’s early cycling travelogues from trips in England and Continental Europe, there is much scope to look at how their political commentary developed in  later books, especially as they ventured further abroad to Eastern Europe, Africa and India. The observations of these self-made and self propelled Anglo-American envoys into distant lands reveal much about gender, imperial, colonial, and global politics in a changing world and provide a snapshot of places and people that would become inaccessible to tourists a few years later with the outbreak of war.


Selected Sources

Pauly, Thomas. Game Faces: Five Early American Champions and the Sports they Changed. (2012)

Pennell, Elizabeth Robins. “Cycling,” St Nicholas. (July 1890)

Pennell, Elizabeth Robins. “Cycling” in Lady Greville, Ladies in the Field: Sketches of Sport. (1894)

Pennell, Elizabeth Robins and Joseph. A Canterbury Pilgrimage. (1884)

Pennell, Elizabeth Robins and Joseph. An Italian Pilgrimage (1887)

Pennell, Elizabeth Robins and Joseph. Our Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. (1888)

Pennell, Elizabeth Robins and Joseph. To Gispyland. (1893)

Pennell, Elizabeth Robins and Joseph. Over the Alps on a Bicycle. (1898)

Tinling, Marion. Women into the Unknown: A Sourcebook on Women Explorers and Travelers. (1989)

Tinker, Edward Laroque. The Pennells. (1951)

Workman, William and Fanny Bullock. Algerian Memories: A Bicycle Tour over the Atlas to the Sahara. London: Fisher Unwin. (1895)

Workman, William and Fanny Bullock. Sketches A Wheel in Modern Iberia. (1897)

Workman, William and Fanny Bullock. Through Town and Jungle: Fourteen Thousand Miles A-Wheel Among the Temples and People of the Indian Plain. (1904)

Workman, Fanny Bullock. In the Ice World of the Himalayas. (1900)











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“Woman power” bicycle kanga from The British Museum


Powerful women on bicycles are everywhere these days–even in the stairwells of The British Museum!

The “Woman power” bicycle kanga shown above hangs in The British Museum’s North Stairs near the Africa galleries. It was printed for the Kali Mata Ki Jai (KMKJ) women’s centre in Gezaulole, Tanzania in 2005. The “woman power” kanga shows a woman on her bicycle with a cargo basket full to the brim. She smiles as she pumps the peddles, riding towards her destination with confidence and determination. Text along the lower side of the print reads “Mwanamke ni Chachu ya Maendeleo,” which translates to “woman is the yeast for development.”

The Kali Mata Ki Jai women’s centre of Gezaulole was established in 1990 by three local women who’s objective was to contribute to development and improve conditions for women in their community, a village of about 5000 people located 10 mile south of Dar es Salaam on the east coast of Tanzania. The centre’s name translates to “long live the black mother.” Before long, a group of ten women were working on projects through the collective. Kali Mata Ki Jai supports women through micro credit training, marketable crafts such as printed cotton and basketry, henna production, small scale farming of crops such as mushrooms, and cycling lessons for girls and women. A charitable foundation based in the Netherlands, KMKJ-ND, which sees cooperation among women in rural communities as a starting point for development, has worked with the centre since 2000.

The “Woman power” kanga was produced as part of an initiative aimed at promoting cycling for girls
and women, as well as acting as a business model for micro-finance projects. A kanga is a rectangular panel of printed cloth including a written statement and worn as a garment most commonly in pairs by women or occasionally singly by men. The Kiswahili word ‘kanga’ means guinea fowl, which reflects the fabric’s ornate, colourful and often spotted patterns. The fabric provides a medium for women to communicate or speak out, and political messages are often printed on kangas, such as the example shown right of an Obama kanga also from The British Museum collection.

Women at the Kali Mata Ki Jai centre designed the bicycle fabric in 2004, which was then printed at Urafiki, one of the oldest textile factories in Dar es Salaam. The project was financially backed by KMKJ-ND and the NCDO Front Office as part of the Micro Credit Fund for Rural Women in Tanzania. 4500 kangas were produced for sale in Tanzania and the Netherlands, and by 2005 they had all been sold. Two were purchased by The British Museum, one in the blue tones shown above and another in russet colours. The “Woman power” bicyle kanga went on display at The British Museum in 2013 as part of the Social Fabrics Exhibit.

20140720-193609.jpgProfits from the “Woman power” kanga bolstered the financial independence of the women involved in its production and their earnings represented an important contribution to their family units, thereby giving them more power and respect at home. The image of the woman cycling that decorates the kanga speaks about another type of independence and power–a powerful, independent woman cycling with determination, such as the Kali Mata Ki Jai mother cycling with her daughter shown left, as she navigates towards a better future with each turn of the wheel.

You can read more about the “Woman power” bicycle kanga on The British Museum Online Collection or the Kali Mata Ki Jai websites.


Main Image: Photographed by Sheila Hanlon at The British Museum, July 2014

“Woman power bicycle kanga,” British Museum Collection Online www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=742463&objectid=1601570

Christopher Spring, “The World in Twenty Objects: Barack Obama’s Kenyan Victory Kanga,” The British Museum Blog, http://blog.britishmuseum.org/tag/kanga/

Kali Mata Ki Jai website, www.vrouwen.net/kalimata/

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Flora Drummond: The Suffragette General

www.sheilahanlon.com_flora_drummondThere’s a new addition the Wheelwomen pages, Flora Drummond. Check out her entry to find out more about how, as a member of the WSPU organising body, Flora contributed to the WSPU cause in England and Scotland.

As usual, there’s some cycling involved!

Wheelwomen is an index of biographies of prominent lady cyclists from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The page is updated regularly, so do pop by to look for new profiles.


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Suffragettes on Wheels Talk at LBK, April 28th


Suffragettes on Wheels: The Bicycle and the Edwardian Votes for Women campaign, Talk at The London Bike Kitchen, April 28th

I’ll be presenting an all cycling, all campaigning suffragettes on wheels bonanza Monday 28 April at the London Bike Kitchen.

Things kick off at 6:30 as part of LBK’s Women and Gender Variant (WAG) night. WaG is a dedicated space for women and gender-variant people to fix their own bikes, with mechanics on hand for help and advice. Read more about LBK’s WAG nights, and the exciting things they do and offer here, as well as how to join here: www.lbk.org.uk

My talk will present highlights from my research on women’s cycling and political activism in early 20th century Britain, with a focus on the suffrage era. Expect suffragettes and suffragists a-wheel on parade, campaigning in the countryside, riding across the country on pilgrimages, and even getting themselves arrested for militant arson attacks.

LBK is a great organisation, and one well worth joining and supporting!

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Mrs Fawcett’s Bicycle License: Cycling stories from the archive



Cycling history turns up in the strangest places. Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s permit to drive a bicycle in turn of the century Johannesburg, shown above, is one such curiosity from the archives.

This small paper license was one of the first ‘hits’ that I came across early in my research on women’s cycling history at The Women’s Library. It may be a minor part of the collection, a piece of ephemera tucked into a box of folders related to Fawcett’s role as a government official investigating conditions in Second Boer War concentration camps, but it’s a fascinating find that reveals a sliver of cycling history nonetheless.

Leafing through Fawcett’s handwritten notes, correspondence, photographs and early drafts of what was to be a hugely influential exposé on the human impact of war may seem like a strange way to go about researching cycling history. But, buried among the files, along with the last remaining nub of the pencil Fawcett used to jot down her field notes, sat her cycling and driving pass.

Boer_War_Camp_www.sheilahanlon.comFawcett, a well-known suffragist and president of the NUWSS, was appointed by the British government to lead a commission into the conditions faced by the families of Second Boer War soldiers in the concentration camps created to house them. The investigation corroborated Emily Hobhouse’s earlier indictment of the atrocious conditions women and children endured in these camps. For Fawcett, in addition to being a humanitarian cause, it served as a suffrage mission since she saw herself as a guardian of Uitlander civil rights.

During the trip, Fawcett was issued several regional driving permits, including the one shown above which granted permission to “ride, drive, and bicycle” in the municipality of Johannesburg. The permit dates to a time when bicycles were newcomers to the road and their legal status as vehicles was uncertain. Cyclists were often at the centre of conflict over road use and there was debate over how to apply traffic laws, licensing, road tax, and border crossing tariffs. Some municipalities introduced bicycle licenses as a means of regulating riders, while others did so as a form of taxation, which may explain the origins of Fawcett’s riding, driving and cycling pass.

The permit is also of interest for what it tells reveals about patterns of road use at the turn of the century. It reflects multi-vehicular traffic, with horse drawn carts, motor vehicles, and bicycles all sharing the road. Fawcett’s permit covered all these forms of transportation. Motorised vehicles were on the rise, but it would be decades before horse drawn vehicles were completely outmoded in South Africa or back home in Fawcett’s England.

Considering this driving permit was issued during an era when the women’s suffrage campaign was on the rise, it serves as a reminder that that women weren’t entirely exempt from legal rights and obligations, nor we’re they cut off from all avenues of political work. This is particularly poignant in the case of middle and upper class women like Fawcett and her circle who were most likely to take advantage of rights and opportunities, whether it meant running for election to their local school board or riding a bicycle.

Battersea_1895_www.sheilahanlon.comThough it is not clear if Fawcett used her bicycle in South Africa, we know that back home in England she was an avid cyclist. She was one of thousands of women who learned to ride during the 1890s cycling craze, such as the lady cyclists enjoying a run in Battersea Park shown left. In 1896, she wrote in a letter home to her mother reporting that she was learning to ride, but after three lessons was “still stupid at it.” She persisted, and eventually become a proficient cyclist.

A few years later, as the fad for cycling among middle and upper class women waned, Fawcett encouraged readers of Wheelwoman magazine to donate their unwanted bicycles to working girls clubs as a way of helping improve the lives of those “who labour in hot stuffy rooms day after day and would welcome the chance of borrowing a cycle.”

South Africa had a robust women’s cycling culture by the time Fawcett arrived. British magazine Lady Cyclist even had a regular columnist based in Johannesburg. Fawcett would not have been out place cycling in urban parts of South Africa, but the more remote regions where she visited concentration camps likely had not yet acclimatized to the sight of a women on a bicycle.

www.sheilahanlon.com_Fawcett_Hyde ParkAfter the turn of the century, bicycles played a part in the women’s suffrage campaign. The campaign tactics adopted by Fawcett’s NUWSS included bicycle parades and tours, while the WSPU used bicycles as get away vehicles in daring arson attacks and other militant actions.

When war broke out in 1914, Fawcett redirected her energy away from women’s suffrage and towards the war effort. As leader of the Active Service League, she ensured her new group’s agenda included Saturday afternoon bicycle parties and rides to local villages and hamlets.

Though we may never know the extent to which Fawcett took advantage of her “permission to ride, drive, and bicycle the municipal limits of Johannesburg,” her permit remains an interesting part of transportation history and an intriguing cycling artefact.

Have you stumbled across an item of interest to cycling history in a surprising place? Send in your story and it will be added to this post.

Sources and further reading

Main Image: Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s Bicycle Licence, The Women’s Library, LSE

Jane Howath, “Millicent Garrett Fawcett,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (2010-14)

David Rubinstein, A different world for women: The life of Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1991)

“Wheelwomen A-H, Millicent Garrett Fawcett”, www.sheilahanlon.com (2014)

Wheelwoman magazine, 1897










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Announcing The New Wheelwomen Page

It's dogged as done itWheelwomen is a micro-project featuring short profiles of women who made cycling history. While many of these individuals appear in the broader body of cycling and women’s history, they deserve attention in their own right. Not only were they pioneering lady cyclists, but many were accomplished in other aspects of their lives as well, such as politics, education, professional careers, art & literature, and the family.

This page will toast our cycling sisters past and present and put their experiences a-wheel in  context. New entries will be listed alphabetically.

Watch for features on activist Frances Willard, racer Tessie Reynolds, society cyclist The Countess of Warwick, champion Beryl Burton and more here. First up will be Sarah Grand, novelist and popularizer of the term ‘new woman,’ who embodied modern womanhood in her career, life, and on her bike in turn of the century Britain.

Explore Women on Wheels

Use the Wheelwomen tab on the toolbar to navigate to the page. Once there, click the portrait of a wheelwoman of interest to find out more. Regular updates will follow.

Know an inspiring wheelwoman?

Contributions and suggestions are welcome! Please get in touch through the comment section or email sheila DOT hanlon AT gmail DOT com.



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Cycling in Saudia Arabia: Wadjda and restrictions on women’s mobility



Haifaa al-Mansour’s new film Wadjda Renior with bikes, www.sheilahanlon.com raises issues in gender parity that resonate across time and place as it traces one girl’s quest to learn to bicycle. I hopped on my trusty iron stead and sped down to the Renoir, Brunswick Square for an afternoon matinee of the film, risking lightening strikes and melting humidity levels on a stormy summer day.

The eponymous star of the film, ten-year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), a feisty schoolgirl with tom boy tendencies and a penchant for mixed tapes and converse sneakers, becomes set on cycling when she sees her friend Abdullah riding with the other neighbourhood boys. When Abdullah steals her headscarf and rides off with it as a prank, Wadjda vows to get a bike of her own so she can race him.

Wadjda’s mother, who is going through a crisis of her own as her marriage unravels, is appalled when her daughter asks for a bike, refusing to even entertain the notion. Saudi girls simply do not ride bikes-especially not nice ones with future marriage prospects to think about.

Despite this set back, Wadjda remains determined to buy a bike-not just any bike, but the green cruiser that swooshed into town like a dream on the roof rack of a delivery truck. It is clear that if she’s going to buy the bicycle, she’s going to have to raise the funds herself. Wadjda’s picks up production as part of a bracelet making cartel, selling zip lock bags of contraband club colored bangles at her school. She also acts as paid go between delivering love letters and arranging romantic rendezvous. The cash still isn’t rolling in fast enough. Instead, Wadjda sets out win the money in a Qur’an reading competition.

Without spoiling the bittersweet end of this touching coming of age story, Wadjda clearly lays out how deeply gender disparity is ingrained in everyday life in Saudi Arabia, cycling included.

The 2012 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report put Saudi Arabia near the bottom of its scale for gender parity, ranking it 131 out of the 134 countries looked at. These conditions stem in part from the country’s adherence to an ultra-conservative interpretation of the Qur’an, resulting in restrictions on women’s rights across the board. Mobility is one area that is compromised. Women are not permitted to drive vehicles, and must have a driver chauffeur them to places including work. To ride a taxi, women must be accompanied by a mahram (male guardian). Riyadh, where Wadjda is set, is the only city where women can ride the bus and even then they must use  a separate entrance and sit at the back.

In April 2013, restrictions on women’s bicycling and motorcycling were relaxed. The ban on cycling for Saudi women had been in place since 1990. Women are now permitted to cycle in designated areas, such as recreational centers. They must wear a full abaya, a black voluminous cape-like over-dress which stretches from head to toe, and be accompanied by a male chaperon. It is suggested that women do not cycling in places where men congregate to ‘”avoid harassment.”

Al-Yawm, a Saudi daily paper, reported “Women are free to ride bikes in parks, seafronts and other areas, provided that they wear fully modest dress, and a male guardian has to be present in case of falls or accidents.” Their account quoted an unnamed source from the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

Cycling is not to be adopted by women for transportation, nor are women encouraged to take up competitive sport. The decision on cycling is yet to be reviewed by the Shura council, Saudi Arabia’s top advisory body. The ban on women driving cars remains intact.

Saudi Arabia is not the only place where women’s cycling is forbidden. From the mid-1990s until 2012, cycling was a fine-able offense for women in North Korea. In parts of Africa, the taboo against women straddling a bicycle is so strong that riding is inconceivable. In Iran, cycling is permitted but frowned upon. The 200o Iranian film The Day I Became a Woman, directed by Marzieh Meshkin, puts a women’s bicycle race in the center of a women’s attempt to break free of her controlling husband. Ayatollah Elm Alhuda, an Imam quoted in the Mohabat News during the 2012 Olympics, explained the typical Iranian stance against women’s cycling, stating ”It is not a sin for a woman to sit on a bicycle saddle, provided she does so indoors or in her backyard…but if she cycles in public her movements and posture will lead to corruption and prostitution.”

The arguments against women’s cycling in Saudi Arabia and other areas where the practice is banned are not that different from those expressed when women’s cycling was first introduced in the West. Women’s cycling may not have been outlawed in the early 1890s, but social conventions certainly discouraged it ways that are comparable to the situation depicted in Wadjda. When Wadjda asks for a bike, her mother dismisses the idea outright and is dismayed that she should even consider cycling since it is not something girls do. The idea that respectable women shouldn’t bicycle was certainly expressed in the early days of cycling. Another scene showing Wadjda walking home from school alone, a construction worker yells out a sexualised comment, much like women complained men did when they went out walking, especially along the club row near Hyde Park in Victorian London. Victorian cyclists were targets for unwanted comments, harassment and even physical assault in some cases.

Wadjda coerces her friend Abdullah into letting her learn to ride using his bicycle. They sneak the bicycle up to a hidden courtyard on the roof of her house where she can practice in seclusion. This is reminiscent of the Victorian women who learned to ride at under the cover of night or in private gardens, free from the prying eyes of the public. When Wadjda’s mother catches her riding, an act made worse by the fact she has invited a boy over to the house, Wadjda panicks and falls off the bike. “I’m bleeding!” Wadjda cries out, to which her mother replies “Oh no, your virginity!” Turns out, it was just a scraped knee. Victorians shared this concern but did not put so boldly. Instead, 1890s anti-cyclists spoke of the dangers of saddles, vibrations, and physical contact with female anatomy.

Cycling is only one way that gender disparity touches women’s lives in Wadjda. Even before she asks for a bicycle, Wadjda’s mild disobedience and pre-teen rebellion, consisting mostly of blaring pop music in her room, wearing jeans and sneakers under her abaya, and questioning restrictions placed on her as a girl, raised eyebrows. This is, after all, a community where phones ring off the hook with gossip about which teacher has been caught with a ‘handsome thief’ in her bedroom and whose daughter still isn’t married off. Jokes between Wadjda and her mother about marry her off turn out to be uncomfortably close to the truth when the marriage of one of her 12 year old classmates to a 20 year old groom is announced in school.

The impact of gender disparity on the lives of adult women is apparent in Wadjda’s mother’s struggles. Wadjda’s mother tries desperately to cling to her failing marriage, keeping her hair long and investing in a glamorous red dress to distract her husband from his search for a second wife who will give him the son she has not been able to produce. When her driver quits, she nearly loses her job since women are not allowed to drive and she turns down another job because male and female employees freely associate with each other. After she explains to her daughter why they, as women, are absent from family tree displayed in their house, Wadjda adds her name to her fathers branch, only to find the sticky note cruelly pulled off and crumpled up because only sons count in family lines.

The film shows how women in influential positions reinforce gender disparity, and are even complicit in it, by accepting restrictions themselves and imploring young women to go along with them, from Wadjda’s mother who normalizes wearing the full abaya to the teachers who admonish students for reading fashion magazines and evacuate the school court yard when men come into view. These women, it turns out, have their own skeltons in their closet despite their outward adherence to social regulations.

The film itself is of note for being the first full length features to be filmed in Suadi Arabia by a woman. To accomplish this in a country where outdoor space is segregated by gender, al-Mansour directed scenes from inside a van alongside the set.

When asked by the Independent to react to the relaxation of the restrictions on cycling for Saudi women, Haifaa al-Mansour commented “Yes, that’s great, right? We should ne happy that changes like this are taking place. I know they seem like they are small and they don’t mean much, but it shows that attitudes towards women are changing, and women are getting more liberties, even if it is very slowly. There is still a long, long way to go, but hopefully things like this pave the way for bigger changes.”

Other Saudi women find the lifting of the cycling ban underwhelming. Twitter feed back suggests the weather in Saudi Arabia is not conducive to cycling, that the roads are not suitable for cycling, riding in an abaya is dangerous, and women didn’t want this ruling anyways-they’d rather have more meaningful rights, like the vote.

The relaxation of restrictions on cycling and critical success of Wadjda may not constitute a full blown feminist revolution in Saudi Arabia, but lets hope as al-Mansour suggests they are steps in the right direction.



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Suffragettes on Wheels: Emily Wilding Davison centennial bike ride and lecture

On June 15th, 100 women on bicycles decked out in suffragette swag will take to the curvy tree lined lanes between Longhorsley and Morpeth, Northumberland. Some will be in Edwardian garb, others in elegant hats, and many will be flying the purple, white, and green. All will have Emily Wilding Davison in their hearts and minds.

June 2013 marks 100 years since WSPU campaigner Emily Wilding Davison was fatally injured at the Epsom Derby. Much has been made of the centenary in the press and women’s communities, but questions remain about the circumstances surrounding Emily’s last act of defiance. Public interest in Emily has been unprecedented–matched only by that of the suffrage era when she became the first ‘Votes for Women’ martyr.

You can find more about Emily in the many articles that have flooded the press in the last few weeks. A quick google search will leave you with more links than you can shake a suffragette banner at. One thing shared across recent coverage is speculation about that century old question: what was Emily’s exact intent when she snuck under the barrier at the Tattenham Corner and intercepted the kings horse?

Of note among recent coverage is Martin Pugh’s History Today article, “Emily Wilding Davison: The Good Terrorist”, which offers an exacting account of the Davison case and the reaction to it. June Purvis’s editorial in Women’s History Review, “Remembering Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913)” reflects on Emily’s character, motivation and activism, providing insights that may help understand what happened on that fateful derby day. Clare Balding’s documentary Secrets of a Suffragette is well worth viewing, particularly for its forensic analysis of the film footage showing Emily’s accident. Highlights from The Women’s Library material related to Emily now held at LSE is available to browse in an online exhibit. For a local history perspective, see Morpeth based genealogist Maureen Howes’ book Emily Wilding Davison: A Suffragette’s Family Album. You can also read how the Guardian reported Emily’s death in 1913 on their From the Archives blog.

Two centennial weekends are planned for mid June; The Wilding Festival June 13-16 in Bloomsbury, which Emily would have known well as a London based WSPU campaigner and the Emily Inspires Centennial Weekend June 13-15 centred up North in Morpeth where Emily’s family lived and where her final resting spot was to be.

The Morpeth based Emily Inspires project has spearheaded a host of Davison memorial projects ranging from suffragette teas and banner making workshops, to writing and drawing competitions, to an oral history project involving local school children. Kate Willoughby’s new play exploring critical moments and relationships in Emily’s life, To Freedom’s Cause, premieres in Morpeth June 14th. Morpeth Town Hall will have rare artefacts on view, including Davison family treasures and the WSPU scarf believed to be the one Emily tried to throw over the king’s horse, in an exhibit called “Northumberland’s Lawless Lassie.”

Cycling will play a major role in how Emily’s life and politics are celebrated in Morpeth. As part of “Bikes and Bonnets” a band of 100 cyclists, one to mark each year since Emily’s fatal accident at the Epsom Derby, will trace the route from her mother’s house in the village of Longhorsley to Morpeth. Local artist Elaine Porter has designed Edwardian hats, cleverly constructed to be fit over bike helmets, for the ride.

I will be delivering a series of talks on the subject of suffrage and cycling, linking the two together and exploring the place of the bicycle in the lives of women like Emily and her suffragette sisters. Though details of Emily’s personal life are difficult to uncover, we know that she was a keen cyclist who used her bicycle in both London and Northumberland.

“Suffragettes on Wheels: The Bicycle and the Emancipation of women in Edwardian Britain” talks take place on the following days:

May 29 Longhorsley Village Hall, 7:00
June 14 North of England Mining and Mechanical Engineers Institute, Newcastle, 7:00 pm
June 15 Morpeth Town Hall, 1:00

The talks are free, and last about one hour inclusive of a Q&A session.

I hope to see you at a talk or on the Bikes and Bonnets bike ride!

Hat for the Bikes and Bonnets ride

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Daisy Bell: The Countess of Warwick

Countess of Warwick Daisy Bell







The Wheelwomen Pages have a new addition, Frances Evelyn ‘Daisy’ Greville, The Countess of Warwick. Daisy, as she was commonly known, was a society hostess, royal mistress, advocate of women’s and worker’s rights, and a pioneering lady cyclist.

Daisy was, without a doubt, one of the most fashionable bicycle belles of her time. Some have even suggested that she may have been the inspiration behind “Daisy Bell,” Harry Dacre’s 1892 music hall hit about a bicycle built for two.

You can read more details about Daisy’s life, politics and passion for cycling, scandals and society gossip included, on her Wheelwomen page.

There is a flower within my heart, Daisy–Daisy, Planted one day by a glancing dart, Planted by Daisy Bell…


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