html lang="en"> Wheelwomen at Work

Project Overview


American women’s involvement in the nineteenth-century bicycle industry was multifaceted and key to the industry as a whole, even though men held leadership positions in bicycle companies. Women designed and produced bicycle accessories and clothing, while others developed frames and components. Women also worked in bicycle shops in sales and even as mechanics, and it was common for bicycle corporations to hire women as sales ‘agents’ to promote their brand. Other women quietly worked their way up to management positions in factories. Working-class women and girls were the invisible laborers behind many components and accessories, working long hours in dangerous machine shops and factory floors.

There are a wealth of sources on women in the bicycle industry, yet they are largely scattered across archives. This disconnect can make it seem as though each individual woman’s contribution to bicycling was an outlining example and not part of a broader trend. Wheelwomen at Work brings together newspaper articles, patents, government documents, and bicycling periodicals to create a more complete understanding of women’s contributions to the nineteenth-century bicycle industry. Each pin documents a woman or group of women’s involvement in the bicycling industry. The pins are color coded to represent four major categories of wheelwomen’s work: Factory Workers, Saleswomen, Inventors and Mechanics.

This project utilizes sources from the following electronic resources: ProQuest Historical Newspapers, Google Books, Google Patents, Haithitrust, Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, America's Historical Newspapers, and Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000. Wheelwomen at Work also incorporates print sources from the Library of Congress due to generous support for travel funding from the Department of History at Michigan State University.

Wheelwomen at Work showcases these sources at the historiographical intersections of sport history, women’s history and business history, with the goal to provide a fresh perspective of wheelwomen's everyday lives and achievements. Scholars have understood cycling primarily through men’s athleticism and innovation, regulating women’s bicycling to short chapters, chapter sections, or footnotes despite the widespread popularity of bicycling among women. The historiography of the American bicycle industry is overwhelmingly a story of men’s successes and failures, typically with a focus on major corporations. The few historians who have incorporated women into bicycling research have only considered women as consumers and there is little scholarship which recognizes and explores women as innovators and workers in this industry. Similarly, scholars who have incorporated women have focused solely on the middle- and upper-classes, and have yet to fully consider working-class women as meaningful contributors to bicycling. By uncovering women’s involvement in the bicycle industry, Wheelwomen at Work contributes to scholarly conversations across multiple fields of inquiry. It also responds to calls by women’s historians such as Susan Lewis Ingalls to rethink the male-normative frameworks of business history, as well as calls for social histories of capitalism. Yet, Wheelwomen at Work is designed for all cycling enthusiasts, scholars and lay riders alike. It ultimately aims to showcase the rich history of women’s work as not simply consumers, but producers of bicycling culture.

Image source: Miffed, Cleveland.“A Visit to the Hartford Rubber Works.” McClure’s Magazine, February 1897, Vol. 8, 1-16, image page 11. Google books.