“Attic Salt” column for Nov. 25, 2012

Frances Willard was 53 when she learned to ride a bicycle in 1893. She died five years later, not in a bicycle accident but from pernicious anemia.

Willard was in poor health as bicycling was becoming the rage in the United States. Her doctor suggested she take up cycling for the exercise and to get her outdoors.

It took Willard three months to learn to ride. Learning to keep her balance, brake and steer in long skirts presented a challenge.

Willard liked challenges.

She earned an international reputation in the temperance and women’s movement which were closely aligned in Willard’s day.

Under Willard’s leadership, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union equated alcoholism with destruction of the home and poor beginnings for children. Get father out of the saloon and make things better at home.

Willard and her supporters demanded the “Home Protection Ballot,” Willard’s less-threatening euphemism for women’s suffrage.

Willard’s book on learning to ride a bicycle is a long essay in which she compares bicycle riding to other forms of freedom.

With the arrival of the “safety bicycle,” cycling gained mass appeal. Unlike earlier “bone crusher” cycles, with one big wheel in the front and a tiny wheel astern, “safety bicycles” were two wheels of nearly equal size driven by a chain attached to pedals.

Before the “safety bicycle,” tricycles were recommended for women because lady cyclists could more easily wear skirts to ride.

After it became clear that bicycles, with women on them, were here to stay, a dress between a skirt and pantaloons became popular.

Women were one-third of the bicycle market. There was the all-black mourning bicycle for widows. And there was the Cherry Screen, invented by one Theron Cherry, that shielded from view a woman’s ankles and feet, while preventing wind from getting up the lady’s skirt.

The screen attached to the front of the bicycle looked like the wings of a large bat.

Women like Willard laughed at men’s attempts to protect them from harm while trying to foist upon them cycling doodads inadvertently designed to make riding a bicycle more difficult and dangerous. The bat wings must have been fun in a head wind.

Willard had the same attitude about learning to ride a bicycle that she did the other challenges in her life:

“That which caused the many failures I had in learning the bicycle had caused me failures in life; namely, a certain fearful looking for of judgment; a too vivid realization of the uncertainty of everything about me; an underlying doubt — at once, however (and this is all that saved me), matched and overcome by the determination not to give in to it.”

I’m indebted to reader Lillie Gallagher for Willard’s book. Gallagher was “downsizing” her library when she discovered a second copy of “How I learned to Ride the Bicycle.”

Gallagher had bought a first copy to give to a friend, a woman in her 60s who’d just learned to ride a bicycle.