American Quarterly and the Bicycle

So oddly, American Quarterly (the main literary journal us American Studies folks publish in) only has three articles referring to women and bicycles. Having read a study a little while ago about how they have few to no articles referring to social class, more articles on gender, and a ton of articles on race, I guess I’m not super duper surprised – the studies of bikes that I’ve seen so far tend to focus first on the object, second on its class or gender implications, and rarely (if at all) on its racial implications. (Scrapper bikes and low-riders would be awesome case studies in this regard.) Also, from what I can tell, the vast majority of bike literature is more in the engineering and social science disciplines than in cultural studies. Hence, few bikes in AQ. However, the articles they have published provide some interesting food for thought, especially if you’re into the whole history/lit/cultural studies angle. Briefly:

Robert E. Riegel, “Women’s Clothes and Women’s Rights,” AQ 15:3 (Autumn 1963), 390-401

Published in 1963, Riegel’s article is a bit dated today. His writing clearly bears the mark of the Mad Men era: though the article focuses on women’s dress reform from the 1840s to the 1920s or so, he often lapses into using “man” as a universal category, and his conclusion, that dress reform, though necessary for health reasons, had little to do with women’s emancipation or suffrage, is both somewhat misogynistic and arguably incorrect. (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Frances Willard would doubtless argue with him on that point.) Further, while his topic and sources speak to an interdisciplinary American Studies mindset, his method is still pretty old-school historical. He takes a topic, women’s dress reform, and traces it through letters and magazine articles from the period, but except for a brief mention of bicycles he ignores anything else that might have been going on at the same time – and I imagine stuff like the Civil War (which he claims had nothing to do with dress reform), the Industrial Revolution, the Arts and Crafts movement, the bicycle craze, World War I, etc., had at least something to do with what women wore and why.

One thing he does do well, however, is provide details. While we’re not given much cultural context for different dress styles (see above), he does describe the garments in great detail, and he provides enough information about the cultural response to each reform to show just how culturally entrenched women’s attire was and how very difficult it would have been to change it. He also maps out a field of study and (however unintentionally) points out huge gaping holes to be filled in by other historians with different sources, different theoretical mindsets, and different methods.

James J. Flink, “Three Stages of American Automobile Consciousness,” AQ 24:4 (Oct 1972), 451-473

From what I can tell, Flink is a pretty important guy as far as transportation and automobile studies in the US go. His 1990 book The Automobile Age is on my short list – Margaret Walsh and Zack Furness both cite him, and, hey, my thesis advisor strongly suggested him as well. Although this article is almost 40 years old and belies a touch of the old American Studies exceptionalist overtones, its Marxist methodology and emphasis on technology ring strangely true today (though hey, it could just be that I’m easily swayed by overcomplicated language. Who knows.)

Flink argues that Americans’ relationship with cars is an intrinsic part of our national identity, and he divides the American “automobile consciousness” into three historical parts: the rapid adoption of automobiles into American attitudes and homes (mostly thanks to Henry Ford); the “mass idolization of the motorcar” that allowed it to transform our lives and landscapes, and the realization, beginning in the late 1950s, that the car was less a personal mobility solution than a huge social problem. (451-2) The bicycle fits into the first stage, as it “made the average man aware of the possibilities of individualized, long-distance highway transportation, creating a demand that neither the horse nor the railroad could satisfy.” (453) He then provides a fascinating cultural analysis of the relationship between stereotypical American values, economics, and the domination of the car in American culture, and alludes several times to the US as a “culture that has invariably preferred technological to political solutions to its problems.” (455)

While his analysis is a bit too teleological for my taste (um, domination by cars is not inevitable), it’s definitely interesting, and it has provided a starting point for many a mobility scholar (particularly Furness, who argues that if bikes provided the same advantages as cars, maybe we should look at bikes more closely.)

Ellen Gruber Garvey, “Reframing the Bicycle: Advertising-Supported Magazines and Scorching Women,” AQ 47:1 (March 1995), 66-101

Working with a much smaller time frame than either Riegel or Flink and from a vastly different paradigm, Garvey’s piece has that awesome mid-nineties postmod flavor of arriving at answers by asking a lot of questions. Her article focuses specifically on the bike craze of the 1890s, and even more specifically on the interplay between advertising and bicycle fiction in 1890s magazines – and, more specifically than that, on what that interplay had to say about women and bicycling. Many accounts of the relationship between feminism and bicycles in the 1890s that I’ve read tend to link bikes to the more political writings of the major feminist writers: Frances Willard, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, etc. (Check out this article for a really interesting example.) Garvey instead links bikes and feminism to the development of mass culture, and she convincingly argues that, depending on whether bike companies provided a major source of revenue for the magazine, the figure of the bicycling woman could either support or subvert the “natural” gender order. Tying her analysis of the bicycle’s role in constructing/disrupting the gender hierarchy to an economic base adds a level of complexity (and reality) to her argument and makes her study of the bicycle in the 1890s a hell of a lot more relevant.

All three articles provide very interesting and very different takes on the role of the bicycle and its relationship to women in the US. The fact that 1995 was the last time AQ published an article about bicycles – and that we’re more than a little beyond the postmodernist paradigm – hopefully means that the time is ripe for another look at the topic. 🙂

* graphic from “Standard Columbia Ordinary Bicycle,” the Smithsonian’s America on the Move exhibition at the National Museum of American History, here.
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