One reason I love working at GVSU is that we faculty are free to follow our intellectual passions. I came out of my English graduate program with a special interest in political rhetoric, and my first significant publication was a rhetorical analysis of arguments for and against the 1991 US invasion of Iraq. Some years later, my most important journal publication argued for a particular method of placing first-year students into the appropriate composition course. Now I’m publishing a book on 1890s women bicycle racers. At many universities around the country, such variety would be frowned upon—and would likely jeopardize my ability to get tenure. Not so at GVSU. Here, we honor free inquiry and see value in chasing intellectual passions, wherever they lead.
My interest in 1890s women’s bicycle racing started with a postcard my wife saw in Big O’s café in downtown Grand Rapids. Tillie, the Terrible Swede. The fastest bicyclist of her sex. These words excited Sue’s intellectual passions, and after quite a bit of research she ended up publishing a children’s picture book about Tillie.
To celebrate, Sue and I rode our bikes to Chicago, Tillie’s hometown, stopping along the way to give presentations at schools that normally couldn’t afford author visits. In Chicago we met Alice Roepke—Tillie’s great-niece—who owned four volumes of Tillie’s scrapbooks, along with dozens of other documents and images, stowed away in a cabin in Minnesota. Always a sucker for memorabilia, I knew I had to see those scrapbooks. And when I did, I knew I had to write a book.
My research confirmed that women’s bicycle racing in the 1890s had been one of the most popular sports in America—yet I could find almost nothing about it in recently published sources. It was as if the women never existed.
That was 2013. Three years later, I had a full manuscript and a book proposal. Here’s the pitch I used when sending the manuscript to publishers:
“Spurred by the emergence of the ‘safety’ bicycle and the ensuing cultural craze, women’s professional bicycle racing thrived in America from 1895 to 1902. Unlike the trudging round-the-clock marathons the men (and their spectators) endured, women’s six-day races were tightly scheduled, fast-paced, and highly competitive, and the best racers of the era—Tillie Anderson, Lizzie Glaw, Dottie Farnsworth, and others—became household names. They were America’s first great women athletes. Despite concerted efforts by the League of American Wheelmen to marginalize the sport and by reporters and other critics to belittle and objectify the women, these athletes forced turn-of-the-century America to rethink strongly held convictions about female frailty and competitive spirit. Alas, because of one highly publicized but poorly managed New York City race in January 1896, the sport was dismissed early on by eastern critics. Nevertheless, over the next six years it drew large and enthusiastic crowds across the rest of the country, from Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, and Chicago to Minneapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, and New Orleans—and many smaller towns and cities in between. The negative eastern bias unfortunately prevailed, and the sport has been almost entirely ignored in sports history, women’s history, and even bicycling history. This book is the first to give these pioneering athletes the place they deserve in those histories.”
Women on the Move: The Forgotten Era in Women’s Bicycle Racing will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in October. If you’re interested in learning more, come to Cook-DeWitt on Wednesday, February 7, at 6:00 p.m., when I’ll be reading from the book and sharing some of Alice’s wonderful images.
Roger Gilles is Professor of Writing and currently serving as interim director of the Frederik Meijer Honors College. After growing up mainly in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Professor Gilles earned a BA in creative and professional writing from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and an MFA in creative writing and a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition from the University of Arizona in Tucson. He joined the Grand Valley faculty in 1992.