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Composition Forum 35, Spring 2017

Review of Sarah Hallenbeck’s Claiming the Bicycle: Women, Rhetoric, and Technology in Nineteenth-Century America

Melissa Nivens

Hallenbeck, Sarah. Claiming the Bicycle: Women, Rhetoric, and Technology in Nineteenth-Century America. Southern Illinois UP, 2016. 205 pp.

Last Saturday I spent the afternoon on the back of our Harley Davidson Road Glide. My husband and I took off on an afternoon ride without a real destination in mind. We just wanted to feel the wind on our faces and enjoy one of the last warm days of autumn. I have ridden hundreds of miles on the back of that motorcycle, but this particular ride was different. This ride was different because I had just devoured Sarah Hallenbeck’s new book, Claiming the Bicycle: Women, Rhetoric, and Technology in Nineteenth-Century America. As I put on my blue jeans, sunglasses, and helmet, I considered the “bicycle garments” (46) that women before me wore on those early Safeties. As I mounted the motorcycle seat, I thought of the controversies over bicycle saddles and the dangers many suspected they might cause (53). As I returned home windblown and a little sunburned, I concluded that I must have my own case of “bicycle face” (62). I conceded that my afternoon motorcycle ride could be considered quite scandalous even today, and I wondered if our ride could be likened to the courtship excursions early bicycles afforded. Ultimately, thanks to Claiming the Bicycle, I concluded that modern women owe early bicyclists much more than I had ever considered.

Sarah Hallenbeck offers an engaging peek into the past by situating the bicycle within historical feminist rhetoric. Her text examines the evolution of the bicycle from the masculine and risky Ordinary to the feminine and more accessible Tricycle to the modern and popular Safety. As more women began to ride the Safety, Hallenbeck discovers, they answered the call for feminine accommodations to the machine. As women embraced this new technology, they discovered a need to invent bicycle accessories and write patents for those new inventions. The growing popularity of bicycles created a trend for whimsical stories of the “Bicycle Girl” along with a space for new authority and rhetorical agency among women riders and writers. Hallenbeck effectively argues that nineteenth-century women’s use of the bicycle creates an intersection of rhetoric, gender, and technology as women participated in both the use of the new technology and the technical communication that surrounded the bicycle.

As unlikely as it might seem, Hallenbeck’s extensive research and plentiful examples reveal how women’s use of bicycle technology allowed women to find an authoritative voice and use language to transform their lives and the lives of others. Hallenbeck cites Royster and Kirsch and their “concept of social circulation” as it illustrates women’s ability to “connect and interact with others and use language with intention” (101). Claiming the Bicycle reveals how as women increasingly participated in the cycling world they intentionally used language to navigate patent procedures, popular publication venues, professional opportunities, and social spaces to “harness[ ] rhetorical agency” (Hallenbeck xvi).

The book’s Preface effectively situates Hallenbeck’s argument among current feminist rhetorical studies and historical technical communication scholarship along with identifying her research methodology and the limitations of her study. Hallenbeck clearly identifies the scholarly gap she hopes to fill. She reminds the reader that others have explored women’s religious and activist activity (Campbell, Bizzell, Mattingly, and Royster), professional work (Wells, Skinner), and rhetorical education (Hobbs, Enoch, Gold) (xiv). However, she agrees with Gail Lippincott’s assertion that little is written about women’s scientific or technical activities (xiv). Hallenbeck’s text uses women’s contributions to the bicycle industry to expose a specific rhetorical agency that has been previously overlooked.

The Introduction offers a thorough history of bicycles from the high-wheeled Ordinary to the more manageable Safety. Perhaps most interesting in this section is the gendered advertisements for the feminine Tricycle. Even though the Tricycle was marketed as an alternative to the masculine Ordinary with its “femininity, health, and accessibility”(16), the machine was simply not compatible for riding in the companionship of a man. An illustration shows how almost comical a pairing of the two machines must have been (13). By 1888, the lower and more reasonable Safety was introduced for both sexes in response to the dangers of the Ordinary and the incompatibility of the Tricycle. Still, Hallenbeck’s research reveals that women were not immediately welcomed into this public and supposedly more equal riding space.

Even modern bicycles for women and girls still incorporate a lowered crossbar frame. W.E. Smith is credited for this design even though it was his wife who suggested a dropped frame to allow for women’s long skirts (33). Hallenbeck points out that this alteration is attributed to “the stroke of brilliance of an individual man” and disregards the role his wife played—let alone the thousands of American women who “were struggling to accommodate their machines and their bodies to one another” (33). Chapter 1 focuses on innovative efforts to meet the needs particular to women riders. “I situate,” Hallenbeck writes, “women’s inventions and innovations not only as corrections to the material limitations of the bicycle as a machine but also as responses to the circulating discourse about women’s special needs and tastes as bicyclists” (35). Throughout the chapter she outlines the design and descriptions of various products borne out of women bicycle enthusiasts. Clearly women took advantage of this historical moment to enter into the public marketplace of invention and design.

Many items appeared as women attempted to meet the needs particular to women riders. Several versions of the “bicycle garment” emerged (46-47). This garment was a sort of blousy trouser that worked to hide a split in the woman’s skirt so that she could better straddle the bicycle. Another note-worthy concern was the bicycle seat itself. Some were troubled with the comfort of the seat and its potential for injury. Others were more concerned with the morality of the seat and its potential for “sexual impropriety” (54). Doctors especially advocated for these adjustments to the saddles and lent validity and urgency to the moral concerns of bicycle riding. Also, nineteenth-century white women were expected to keep their skin pale and smooth. Hours cruising on a bicycle in the sunshine could wreck this beauty standard. Therefore, some women worked to combat this problem by inventing contraptions like a parasol that attached to the bicycle’s handlebars. Certainly women found ways to participate in the use of new technology and creatively meet their needs. Still Hallenbeck smartly points out that women tried to downplay their inventions as “the product of serendipity rather than hard-won expertise or deliberate strategy” (65). Essentially, as women captured this new rhetorical agency, they found the need to frame it in such a way that it did not jeopardize their femininity or their roles as wife and mother.

While Chapter 1 focuses on invention and technical communication, Chapter 2 discusses magazine writing that emerged as a result of the bicycle’s popularity among women. Hallenbeck once again asserts that women took advantage of a particular historical moment to contribute to the framing of the cultural structure. “Bicycle fiction, personal commentaries, and travel narratives,” she asserts, “all provided women writers with unique rhetorical resources through which they shaped the particular contours of the bicycle girl’s complex and shifting ethos” (72-73). Some of the fiction writing described in this chapter characterizes the bicyclist as a young, modern, independent, and carefree woman. Other writing discussed in this chapter includes commentary used to promote bicycle riding among other women. The chapter closes with a look at travel writing that shared tales of adventure aboard bicycles.

Chapters 3 and 4 explore even more nuanced writing contributions during the bicycle craze. Some women established a voice in sharing their own authentic literacy narratives as they learned to ride a bicycle or encouraged others to make the attempt. Other writers found a specific audience as they composed more formal instructional manuals with women in mind. These writers offered step-by-step instructions for riding or making minor repairs to the machine. Still, other women wrote in response to the common medical concern that women were fragile and that overexertion would contribute to health problems and especially reproductive disorders. Hallenbeck writes, “Drawing from their own embodied experience aboard the wheel, non-medically trained women writers authored testimonials that reframed their exertions as evidence of good health rather than exhaustion” (135). Because the writers were not medically or professionally trained, they did not have to rely on the restraints of traditional scientific studies. Instead writers used personal experience to challenge commonly accepted medical discourse and employ a new ethos in discussing women’s health and strength. Certainly this type of writing illustrates another example of rhetorical agency borne out of the American bicycle craze.

Hallenbeck makes a clear and convincing argument that women used the bicycle craze to enter into the public sphere as both writers and cyclists to facilitate social and cultural change. However, it seems that this opportunity was not available for all women. Perhaps the cost of the machine was prohibitive as Albert Pope sold his premier line of bicycles in the 1890s for $100 each (167). Perhaps, as Hallenbeck suggests in Chapter 4, the sport itself (like much of America) was segregated as African American men and women were barred from both bicycle clubs and competitions (155). While the text does mention that bicycles eventually reached more diverse consumers, the narratives and rhetorical artifacts contained in this text primarily offer the recovery of a middle class white women’s history.

In her conclusion, Hallenbeck broadens her argument and connects this rhetorical historiography to a larger purpose. She reminds the reader that the stories of women bicyclists have been ignored because they were not necessarily an organized endeavor. She describes these efforts as “collected” rather than collective (171). She asserts that what nineteenth-century women did to re-gender technology and write about those experiences is not unlike what we can do today in the twenty-first century. Hallenbeck identifies and makes three broad generalizations about what she calls “technofeminist rhetorical activity” (172). She asserts that although women today have taken to the Internet to publish blogs and instructional YouTube videos, they may not recognize their responsibility and power in shaping the future of technology. She calls on women to ignore the “dominant cultural narratives that emerge about people and machines” and realize our ability to position ourselves as agents for change (172).

So, I return to my afternoon on the back of a Harley. Motorcycles are decidedly masculine, and the women who ride are often considered submissive and even sexualized passengers. Still, there are those women who take hold of the handlebars themselves and venture out onto the open road. I wonder if riders and passengers alike consider the efforts of the early Bicycle Girl—her anxiety over the immodesty of bicycle garments or her extreme efforts to avoid bicycle face or her concern for her moral ruin from the bicycle seat. Maybe we should. While the nineteenth-century bicycle craze was relatively short lived, and the world quickly gave way to new inventions like motorbikes and automobiles, those women bicyclists who asserted new authority through innovation and the written word literally and figuratively paved the way for future generations of women. I applaud Sarah Hallenbeck for uncovering their stories and masterfully filling a gap within feminist rhetorical scholarship. Ride on!

Works Cited

Bizzell, Patricia. Frances Willard, Phoebe Palmer, and the Ethos of the Methodist Woman Preacher. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 4, Fall 2006, pp. 377-98.

Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs. Men Cannot Speak for Her: A Critical Study of Early Feminist Rhetoric. Praeger, 1989.

Enoch, Jessica. Refiguring Rhetorical Education: Women Teaching African American, Native American, and Chicano/a Students, 1865-1911. Southern Illinois UP, 2008.

Gold, David. Rhetoric at the Margins: Revising the History of Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1873-1947. Southern Illinois UP, 2008.

Hobbs, Catherine. Nineteenth-Century Women Learn to Write. U of Virginia P, 1995.

Lippincott, Gail. Rhetorical Chemistry: Negotiating Gendered Audiences in Nineteenth-Century Nutrition Studies. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, vol. 17, no. 1, Jan. 2003, pp. 10-49.

Mattingly, Carol. Well-Tempered Women: Nineteenth-Century Temperance Rhetoric. Southern Illinois UP, 1998.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change among African American Women. U of Pittsburgh P, 2000.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Gesa E. Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois UP, 2012.

Skinner, Carolyn. Incompatible Rhetorical Expectations: Julia W. Carpenter’s Medical Society Papers, 1895-1899. Technical Communication Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 4, 2012, pp. 307-24.

Wells, Susan. Out of the Dead House: Nineteenth-Century Women Physicians and the Writing of Medicine. U of Wisconsin P, 2001.

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