Mizrahi highlights how the bicycle paved the way for women’s rights

Part 1 of an interview with Mike H. Mizrahi,
Author of The Great Chattanooga Bicycle Race

We live in a world where a device on our wrist can detect our every step and vital sign while our phones pop up with notifications telling us where we are, in case we did not already know. Too easily we take for granted the great inventions of the past that drastically changed the world at the time they were introduced. Take the bicycle, for example. In his debut novel, The Great Chattanooga Bicycle Race (Redemption Press), author Mike H. Mizrahi tells the story of a woman who creates waves by not only riding a bicycle, but doing so in bloomers. A woman riding a bicycle in pants seems trivial to us now, but at the turn of the 20th century, it was a very big deal and played a part in the advancement of women’s rights.

Q: In a few sentences, tell us about The Great Chattanooga Bicycle Race.

It’s 1895, and the new “safety” bicycle is taking the nation by storm. Young Anna Gaines has fallen in love with the sport and is intrigued by what the women in the North are wearing to ride: bloomers. But Chattanooga, the gateway to the South, and Anna’s own mama are not about to sit idly by while she unleashes such scandalous behavior upon their city. Socialite Bertha Millwood, haunted by the tragic death of her own daughter, leads a community revolt. Anna rides in spite of her own self-doubt and lack of confidence, born of a tragic childhood injury, and she battles against the roadblocks that Bertha and others put up to derail her. In the end, Anna must race the president of the Cycle Club while the citizens watch to decide if women should share the same right as men to ride a bicycle in Chattanooga. However Peter Sawyer, the club president, is beside himself; he’s in love with Anna!

Q: Some of us may laugh about the standards of modesty during that time period and think a woman wearing bloomers isn’t very scandalous, but it was a big deal to Anna. Today some Christian women still struggle with defending their standards of modesty. How can all of us respect the personal standards and values of others better?

Dress standards shift, even within churches, and have throughout time. The lines of modesty and indecency are often blurred in the eyes of the beholder. For example, Anna opts eventually to wear bloomers when riding because of practicality and safety reasons, not to be provocative. Skirts often became entangled in the bicycle chain and caused women to tumble. Today even a modest American woman might look askance at a Muslim woman who wears a burka or a man who wears a turban. Clothing in ancient times was vastly different than modern-day fashions. I believe the biblical admonition calls us to dress modestly and in good taste, in accordance with the standards of the day and in the society in which we live. In the 21st century, withholding judgment of others should be the guiding principle for us all.

Q: Was the book based on a true story? Was there a reason why you set the book in the south, specifically Chattanooga, Tennessee?

As I researched the amazing impact the bicycle had on the American social fabric, I noticed one region was slow in accepting female cyclists: the South. Women wearing bloomers was a non-starter. In September 1895, the L.A. Herald proclaimed, “. . . in almost every southern newspaper the appearance of a pair of bloomers is treated almost as would be the coming ashore of the sea serpent.” After the War Between the States, Chattanooga was the “gateway to the South.” Shipping via the Tennessee River and several different rail lines through the city connected the industrialized North to the struggling South and created a magnificent business hub within the city. A shift in Southern social norms involving the bicycle might well have started there and spread to other cities. So I chose Chattanooga — a different kind of southern city after the war.

Q: How did the invention of the bicycle pave the way for women’s rights in this country?

Putting social mores aside, the construction of early bicycles made it difficult for ladies to ride. The first real bicycle, the Draisienne, hit America’s shores around 1818. Made almost entirely of wood, the rider propelled himself forward by alternately pushing his feet against the ground. Fast-forward to the “Bone Shaker,” or the Velocipede, with a pedal on an enlarged front wheel. In 1870, the “Penny Farthing” was introduced, the bike with the huge front wheel and pedal and a much smaller rear wheel. While women experimented with these contraptions, it was the invention of the “Safety Bicycle” in the ‘80s that launched a revolution. This forerunner to the bicycle of today was chain-driven, with same-sized wheels, pneumatic tires and brakes. Manufacturers produced bikes with drop-down frames to accommodate the women better, and soon off they rode by the millions. Women were no longer confined to the farm, city and church. They were unshackled.

Q: In what ways did the popularity of the bicycle change the social and economic fabric of society in 1890s America?

The bicycle created a new mobility for women, which led to increased independence. To accommodate women riders, clothing manufacturers created new streamlined dresses and skirts that fell to the ankles — a more stylish alternative to the traditional hooped dress. Female riders increasingly abandoned the tight corset and took to wearing more comfortable apparel, such as bloomers. The “Gibson Girl” emerged in newspaper and magazine advertisements — the artistic creation of a thousand women featured tall and slender lines, ample hips and buttocks, youthful features and ephemeral beauty. The “New Woman,” the feminist ideal, rode into the 20th century on a bicycle — all the way to the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

To keep up with Mike H. Mizrahi, visit www.mikehmizrahi.com. You can also follow him on Facebook (AuthorMikeMizrahi) and Twitter (@MikeHMiz).