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Book Review: Wheels of Change by Sue Macy

Updated: 6 days ago

Wheels of Change - How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom…by Sue Macy


Wheels of Change: Book Review
Wheels of Change: Book review by Saie Shetye

Book review of Wheels of Change: How women rode the bicycle to freedom (with a few flat tyres along the way)- Sue Macy


Wheels of Change is an easy read book on the evolution of cycles and how women made the most of this innovation. National Geographic published this book in 2011 and is a surprisingly tiny, 96-page book for something that covers the history of the bicycle evolution and women’s access to it. One of the book’s strengths is its illustrations, especially when trying to imagine how the described bicycle might have looked.





The book does focus heavily on bicycling in America with references of how bicycle designs developed in Europe, made their way to America. If you do not know how the earliest cycles looked, then this is also a book that gives you some idea of how cycles evolved from the boneshakers and the high wheelers to what we have today with modern brakes on the rare wheel, the same wheel size, rubber tyres and the wheels going from iron to lighter materials.


The book starts with the first American bicycle manufacturer, Albert Pope and his interest in the cycle. It also has an illustration from what is possibly the earliest sketched idea of the cycle from the St Giles Church in England way back in 1642 which was a wooden frame and wheels.

One can then see how the iron frames of the boneshaker or the velocipede eventually evolved into the high wheelers and then the modern cycles.

Once you familiarise yourself to these earliest designs, Sue Macy eases the reader into features for women like the side saddle with both pedals on the left side for women to ride. 

One of the standout pages from this book if you are a woman reader and pick this one up for some bicycle riding inspiration is page 19 which narrates some inventions related to the bicycle by women. These inventions were not necessarily for the conventional ‘women-friendly’ features for the cycle but also include innovations to the bicycle lock or the stand as well as the bicycle skirt fastener.   



After some pages on celebrity cyclists and bicycle slang the book graduates to bicycle fashion and how skirts evolved to Turkish trousers as the preferred attire while cycling for women popularised also by feminist Amelia Bloomer. The debates around morality of the clothing find some space in this book. Sue Macy gives some examples of how, in the late 19th century, newspapers at the time spoke of how this bloomer evolution in bicycle fashion had gone too far. The book is sprinkled with references of how the cycles obviously improved mobility and revolutionised transport until automobiles made cycles redundant. 


The second half of the book increasingly focuses on women and cycling with a chapter on bicycling records and how women competed for the century rides amongst others with a clear focus on American records.

The following chapter becomes even more intense and you finally reach that part of the book which speaks of how bicycling revolutionised transport, saved money for housing horses, and the side-role bicycles played in women’s rights protests like protests for full admission of women to Cambridge University.

The chapter is full of examples of feminist appreciation of cycles, from how they are easier to maintain to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s belief, and rightly so, about how the cycle taught equality in social relations without distinction to colour. 

The book’s obvious drawback is its American focus leaving readers wondering what was happening in other parts of the world when the bicycle evolution took America by storm. If you pick this book up to read detailed accounts of women’s liberation on the bicycle, one is left wanting more. The book has tried to grapple with too many topics in brief and doesn’t quite fill the gap in bicycle literature on its role in women’s liberation. 


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