On The Bicycles Of My Grandmother

There is a certain freedom, independence really, that I enjoy that I have to say that I do take for granted. Even the little daily things, my job in a male-dominated field, for instance – logistics/receiving. I ride every day to work and back and I have a nice view.

And, strangely, you know, it never occurred to me, and I forget that my Grandma was a feminist – it is just not a part of my childhood narrative, I guess. For me, it seemed entirely natural to be surrounded by strong, educated and independent minded women. My Grandmother was the Matriarch and ruled the roost.

Everyone turned to her, for advice about anything, about sex, or for a laugh, definitely for the truth, and she was the dynamic centre of our world, my whole childhood, into my teens.

It was an old family friend who reminded me, who seemed shocked, and then told me this story.

There was this group of women all sitting around the table one afternoon at Grandmas when she brought in a magazine to ask her Mom what a word meant. Grandma always had magazines about, and no Ladies Journal’s, but stuff like The New Yorker, Time, Macleans and the like. Well, the word she needed an explanation for was ‘abortion’.

So I guess this set off a firework of discussion, as some of the women present were opposed, and let’s just say she got her answer, and then some.

It reminded me that for the first 20 or so years of my Grandma’s life she was not allowed to vote. That floors me.

Grandpa, Grandma & friends – probably late 30’s

She died when I was 17 years old, and it took our whole family probably a decade to heal. I don’t know if my Mom ever did.

I have that strong mind, and will, though it has been difficult to muster at times, you know life has a way. Yet, somewhere inside her words and strong presence still lingers in all our lives.

So when I was reading today that bicycles contributed to the, well basically was a defining factor in liberating women from the yoke of some man’s coach, or horse, by your leave, sir crapola.

Both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are credited with declaring that “woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle,” a line that was printed and reprinted in newspapers at the turn of the century. The bicycle took “old-fashioned, slow-going notions of the gentler sex,” as The Courier (Nebraska) reported in 1895, and replaced them with “some new woman, mounted on her steed of steel.”


With two wheels she could fly off to wherever she cared to go, long as she was able to stand the ridicule, I suppose. Since the opposition to women having freedoms such as that was rare and considered to be a danger to the establishment – well, a danger to men, since then the women would know what the buggers were really up to, and would maybe have to do some fricken work, eh?

Probably something like that.

So bicycles represented a turn of freedom to women in the late 19th century. Grandma was born in 1907, and was a product of that still lingering Victorian mindset, in the wilds of Southwestern Ontario farming country. So I imagine that Grandma, respecting her elders, but being who she was, must have had to on occasion bite her tongue, which from what I understand was not her forte.

Even the famous American sharpshooter, Annie Oakley, was a big fan of the bicycle, or the wheel as it was called at the time. Known for her performances in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, Annie Oakley didn’t just shoot while riding horseback; she also taught herself to ride a bike without handlebars in order to hit targets with her free hands.


We were told a story once by the cousins about Grandma. So, the bunch (Grandma’s sister and her two girls) were up from the states visiting, who was Grandma’s older sister, Lex. So all the sisters are there, in the kitchen of course, and one of them asks, “Has Aunt Milly (my Grandma) ever been embarrassed”?…to which all the sisters burst into hysterical laughter (there were 5 sisters, and 1 boy, Uncle Jack). The first one to come to I guess was Aunt Helen (next to youngest, Aunt Jo is the baby), goes “are you kidding? I wish”!

I sometimes look at these old photos of this young vibrant woman and wonder what difficulties she must have faced due to her open and intelligent mind, and outspoken nature, in a time when still not everyone considered these assets.


But, my Grandmother, the old woman that I knew as a child, was backrubs and oatmeal in the morning next door at her place listening to the CBC – a coveted spot to be, just sayin. And of course, there were no discussions concerning Gloria Steinem and Women’s rights, as, by the time I was old enough, she was gone.

Funny, cause I don’t take for granted the freedom my Rose and Big Red have given me, certainly not. I’ve never had my driver’s license, and the independence two wheels have given me this last 8 months is tremendous. Yet it never occurred to me the freedom it gives all women.

What things you can do with just two wheels? And you can perhaps mail a private letter, meet with a friend, go anywhere you want, as far as you want, no money required, just two wheels and the steam to get there.

As one female cyclist stated in 1899: The bicycle is in truth the women’s emancipator. It imparts an open-air freedom and freshness to a life hithertofore cribbed, cabined and confined by convention. The cyclists have collided with the unamiable Mrs Grundy (a voice for conservative opinion in the period) and ridden triumphantly over her prostrate body.


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