A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Review of Claiming the Bicycle: Women, Rhetoric, and Technology in Nineteenth-Century America by Sarah Hallenbeck

Millie Hizer, Indiana University Bloomington

(Published April 5, 2022)

I first read Sarah Hallenbeck’s Claiming the Bicycle: Women, Rhetoric, and Technology in Nineteenth-Century America in February of 2020, five years after it was published. This was before the pandemic changed our lives, ushering us into the “Zoom Era.” At first, I resented having to use Zoom. Learning to navigate this online world felt impossible until I began to embrace the facets of online teaching and learning that began to make academia more accessible for my disabled body-mind—a body-mind that, it turns out, works more efficiently from home. I began to recognize that the “Zoom Era” held “significant opportunities to enhance access and participation” (Knight 291). Extending beyond my own interest in accessibility, I began to think about the possibilities of liberatory technology. Naturally, I came back to Claiming the Bicycle, which reminded me that technology can be a powerful force for enacting social change and increasing access.

Claiming the Bicycle helped bridge my interests between accessibility and liberatory technology, which attests to the scope of this project. Working within the feminist rhetorical practice of claiming/reclaiming, Hallenbeck’s book argues that the women who rode and encouraged the use of the bicycle in the last decades of the nineteenth century “exercised the rhetorical agency afforded by the expanding network of American bicycling culture in order to produce social change” (Hallenbeck 32). As an important addition to the “Studies in Rhetoric and Feminisms” series from Southern Illinois University Press, Sarah Hallenbeck’s Claiming the Bicycle is positioned at the intersection of feminist rhetorical criticism, material rhetorics, and technical communication, which will be valuable to enculturation readers interested in examining the ways incremental social change can take shape among bodies, marginalization, and material culture.

Incremental social change is at the center of Claiming the Bicycle. In answering Gesa E. Kirsch and Jacqueline J. Royster’s call to “reimagine the dynamic functioning of women’s work in domains of discourse,” Hallenbeck demonstrates the importance of collected rhetorical activities in facilitating progressive change (660). “Collected rhetorical activities,” or “highly varied, broadly distributed rhetorical activities of women who are not part of a discrete organization or collective,” function outside of established power structures (Hallenbeck xv). Collected rhetorical activities work alongside the margins of society, resembling what Michel de Certeau calls “tactics” of resistance that function outside of traditional power structures (The Practice of Everyday Life).

Throughout Claiming the Bicycle, Hallenbeck notes that women transformed both bicycle culture and the bicycle itself; these transformations often took the form of grassroots invention and activism. As women riders developed such features as the bicycle saddle, they became both users and inventors of this technology. The liberatory effects of the 1890s “bicycle craze” were numerous, especially in terms of the agency it afforded women, leading Hallenbeck to establish a theory of “technofeminist rhetorical agency.” The theory argues that “even users, though relatively marginalized from processes of design and manufacture, possess rhetorical resources for mediating the material and symbolic shape technologies take” (172). This technofeminist rhetorical agency positions women as active rhetorical agents in shaping various technologies, enabling them to mediate change over time and through collected efforts. I appreciate this theory of technofeminist rhetorical agency because it emphasizes the oftentimes overlooked ways social progress can take shape. Hallenbeck’s work speaks to our current moment in rhetorical studies—a moment in which our field is working to become more inclusive. Indeed, a moment in which Roxane Gay, who sees writing as a mechanism for social change, is the keynote speaker at multiple flagship conferences in the discipline. If our field is to value change, it must also consider the rhetorical tactics utilized by marginalized communities to enact social change.

The book is divided into a preface and introduction, four main chapters, and a conclusion that all together show how bicycle riding women embodied technofeminist rhetorical agency. As a historical foregrounding, both Hallenbeck’s preface and introduction position the bicycle as a mediated and malleable technology. The “bicycle craze” of the 1890s, which serves as the setting of the work, was largely driven by those hoping to make bicycle riding more accessible and socially acceptable for women. Claiming the Bicycle answers the call from scholars such as Amy Koerber to “expand upon the range of subject matter considered in the current rhetoric of technology research” by examining the ways women bicycle riders utilized rhetorical agency to mold the device (64-65). For example, the seats on early bicycle models were extremely uncomfortable for women, forcing them to sit in a way that exposed their undergarments. Women inventors then responded to “circulating discourses” of discontent and developed the bicycle saddle, bicycle umbrella, and bicycle dress, which were patented to ameliorate various design problems impacting women riders (Hallenbeck 36). As Hallenbeck explains, technofeminist rhetorical agency “emerged through women inventors’ embodied interactions with the machine they sought to innovate” (66). In effect, the women who responded to various design problems became technofeminist rhetorical agents through their role as user-inventors of the technology. 

From responding to specific design problems to popularizing the narrative of the female “bicycle girl,” women of the 1890s utilized their technofeminist rhetorical agency in a myriad of ways. For Hallenbeck, a “technofeminist rhetorical agent understands her interactions with technology as helping maintain, complicate, or contest dominant social norms” (172). Chapters 2 and 4 show how these technofeminist rhetorical agents did so by interacting with both the bicycle itself and bicycle culture writ large. In Chapter 2, Hallenbeck recounts how women writers featured in popular magazines such as Outing, Godey’s, and Munsey’s collectively reassured the public that bicycling wouldn’t dismantle traditional gender roles. Narratives featured in such magazines combatted the underlying assumption that “women bicyclists were masculinized, ungainly, and immoral” by featuring traditionally feminine women (76). The women in these bicycle narratives were typically content to follow their male cycling companions and embody the persona of a childlike “bicycle girl.” These depictions were used to “construct a culturally viable ethos for the woman bicyclist” (72). This construction highlights a central tension in the book between social change and social order: as women bicyclists gained more autonomy, they also needed to reassure the public that they would not disrupt the existing social order. I find this to be a particularly savvy rhetorical technique—one that represents how rhetorical agents can work within a system of power while also changing that system.

The powerful tension these women put into play between social change and social order is highlighted throughout the book. As Hallenbeck explains in Chapter 4, many skeptics were concerned that “women could endanger their fitness for other biological and physical activities such as reproduction and parental nurturing” by spending a significant amount of time on the bicycle (133). However, a multitude of female racers continually assured the public of their health and vitality, once again reframing the narrative that bicycling would masculinize women. Take for instance Emma Moffet Tyng’s 1890 article “Exercise for Women: Tricycle and Bicycle” in Harper’s Bazaar. In the article, Tyng describes bicycling as “therapeutic in nature”, which challenged the commonplace assumption that riding a bicycle can be dangerous to a woman’s health and “limited energies” (143). By confronting skeptics, these women are depicted as active participants in shaping bicycle culture.

Claiming the Bicycle will also be valuable to scholars interested in the liberatory potential of technical writing. For instance, Chapter 3 focuses on technical manuals teaching women how to ride, and in some cases manage, bicycles. Texts such as Mary E. Ward’s 1896 book The Common Sense of Bicycling: Bicycling for Ladies taught women how to be autonomous agents capable of managing the technical aspects of their own bicycles. Authors of these manuals “used technical communication as an intervention in dominant narratives about both women and bicycle culture” (Hallenbeck 113). I agree with Hallenbeck— “technical writing is not a transparent or neutral reflection of reality” (xviii). Rather, it can be used to challenge cultural assumptions and facilitate change.

The concluding chapter, “Toward a Technofeminist Rhetorical Agency,” is in my mind the pinnacle of the book. The chapter brings together the various enactments of agency from the previous four chapters to posit more broadly that a technofeminist rhetorical agent “rejects the notion that technologies come to her in finished form” and can see “potential avenues for social change in both technology and technical writing” (172-173). The theory of a technofeminist rhetorical agent builds on Judy Wajcman’s 2004 work TechnoFeminism. In taking Wajcman’s call to analyze the complex relationship between women and the technologies they’ve shaped, Hallenbeck’s book will also be of interest to those studying the history of modern-day technologies. Readers of books such as Legacy Russell’s 2020 work Glitch Feminism or Carole Stabile’s 1994 work Feminism and the Technological Fix will find that Claiming the Bicycle is a noteworthy contribution to studies interrogating technology as it impacts gender and vice versa.

Although I do wish the book would’ve spent more time acknowledging the role women of color played in the history of the bicycle, I recognize that few women of color had access to bicycles at this point in history. In Chapter 4, Hallenbeck briefly acknowledges some of the African American women who excelled at racing, noting how they “embodied new arguments both about femininity and race relations in general” (156). Nonetheless, Hallenbeck must concede that “white women racers fared better than their African American sisters” (156). So, although Hallenbeck’s theory of technofeminist rhetorical agency might not focus on women of color because of its historical constraints, it still elegantly captures the newfound sense of rhetorical agency that some women experienced because of the bicycle—a sense of agency that may in turn usefully inform other studies attuned to even more voices and bodies.

Even though Claiming the Bicycle was written in 2015, it is still relevant today as a model for studying the tactics of marginalized communities. After reading this book, I can see why Susan B. Anthony once said that the bicycle “had done more for the emancipation of women that anything else in the world” (qtd. in Hallenbeck 167). Hallenbeck’s book also gives me hope that we can continue, as decolonial scholar Walter Mignolo might say, to “delink” from traditional knowledge making practices in rhetorical studies by listening to and incorporating more voices in the field (468). If the field is to become more inclusive, we must read more books like Claiming the Bicycle that theorize the many ways resistance can take shape.

As I finish this review, I can’t help but wonder how I can fashion my own technofeminist rhetorical agency. Does this mean becoming more critical of technology around me? Does this mean becoming more aware of how I can shape technology as a disabled user in the Zoom Era? Can I even live up to the role of a technofeminist rhetorical agent? While I don’t have a definitive answer to these questions, I know that they will become even more important in a post-pandemic world, because as the pandemic becomes a nightmare of the past, we will continually encounter technologies that have the power to enact social change, increase access, and liberate. Will we be able to recognize and embrace this potential as technofeminist rhetorical agents, or will we passively accept technology as mere users? I choose the former—to actively question and engage with the technology around me. I choose to embrace technology that makes the world more accessible. I choose to thrive in this new reality and advocate for more virtual opportunities in academia. In other words, I choose to be a technofeminist rhetorical agent.

Works Cited

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, 1984.

Hallenbeck, Sarah. Claiming the Bicycle: Women, Rhetoric, and Technology in Nineteenth-Century America. Southern Illinois University Press, 2015.

Knight, Melinda. “Promoting Accessibility in the Zoom Era.” Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, vol. 84, no. 4, 2021, pp. 291–293.

Kirsch, Gesa E., and Jacqueline J. Royster. “Feminist Rhetorical Practices: In Search of Excellence.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 61, no. 4, 2010, pp. 640– 672.

Koerber, Amy. “Toward a Rhetoric of Technology.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication, vol. 14, no. 58, 2000, pp. 58–73.

Mignolo, Walter D., "Delinking: The Rhetoric of Modernity, the Logic of Coloniality and the Grammar of De-coloniality." Cultural Studies, vol. 21, no. 2, 2007, pp. 449–514.

Wajcman, Judy. TechnoFeminism. Germany, Wiley, 2013.