The Denunciation of Bicycle
Races for Women
By Mrs. Martha Frazer, Matron at the Union Depot, St. Louis, Missouri:
“The riders dashed by at a frightful speed. I shuddered. Their bodies were bent almost double. I wondered when they would stop. When I learned that these young women subject themselves to such tests of endurance for money, I was grieved. It pained me to see them forfeiting health for gain in such a way. I was almost tempted to say: “They are selling their body and soul.” Such a strain is bound to wreck the body. God intended women to be better than horses.”
Tillie Anderson was born in Skåne (pronounced Scania in English), Sweden in 1875. She moved to America in 1889 for the same reason a lot of other young girls and their families did—in search of a better life. Within a year of arriving in the states, Tillie was bitten with ‘bicycle fever.’
Bicycle racing quickly became the biggest spectator sport of the 1890s, with events drawing as many as twelve thousand spectators. Tillie was soon a sensation, competing in up to thirty grueling races a year. In 1898, Tillie became a world champion by beating Lisette Martin, Europe’s best female bicyclist, in both a one-hour match and a four-day race.
The bicycle craze gave women of all classes new freedoms, opening the doors for new ideas in the new century. Now, women could go out for rides by themselves without men to accompany them. Women could wear clothing that made it easier to ride, like bloomers or divided skirts. Comfortable clothing was also considered a shocking notion because women were supposed to dress in ways that showed off their figures for men.
Today, we celebrate women athletes, but in the 1890s, many people thought a woman’s body couldn’t handle the strain of athletic competition and that muscles made a woman look manly and therefore not attractive to men. By insisting on doing what she loved, no matter what others thought, Tillie convinced lots of girls that they could do something they loved, too. Tillie was an early and pioneering example of a woman who chose to work out and develop her body for a sport.
Tillie held her title as world women’s champion until the end of the bicycle craze. In 1902, women’s cycle racing ended as quickly as it began. Sadly, Tillie’s husband, Phillip, died of tuberculosis that same year. Tillie moved to Minnesota and became a masseuse, earning enough money to enjoy her new pastime—driving her automobile.
In 2000, Tillie was inducted into the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame. Her grandniece and archivist, Alice Olson Roepke, presented at her dedication. Alice has been educating audiences about her grandmother’s famous bicycle racing sister, for more than ten years. Alice passionately shared her memories and Tillie’s scrapbooks and memorabilia with me–thank you, Alice! I also used several excellent publications from the non-profit organization, The Wheelmen, to find out more about the history of bicycling and Tillie Anderson. I am particularly grateful to author Heather Drieth for her articles on Tillie.
Click here to browse some amazing old photos from Tillie’s riding days.