Female cyclists raced short and long-distance endurance events at the end of the 1800’s and early 1900’s, and Tillie Anderson was one of the fastest and the toughest. Over the course of her seven-year career, she entered 120 races and won all but 11. At the time, women’s cycling was becoming one of the country’s great sporting spectacles, often drawing larger crowds than college football and professional baseball games.
Anderson was proud of being a serious athlete and did not apologize for her muscular physique. While thousands attended the races and had no problem with women racing, a vocal minority were holding on to the values of a Victorian era and trying to steer people against women in long tights and clingy shorts. Some of Anderson’s own friends would not speak to her after seeing some of the racing outfits she wore, but others saw bicycles as a vehicle to personal freedom and expression.
During an interview in 1896, the year Tillie Anderson was the undisputed ladies' cycling champion of the world, Susan B. Anthony shared her perspective on bicycling:
Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel... the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.
After her racing career, Tillie Anderson helped establish bike paths in Chicago and spent summers at a lakeside cabin in northern Minnesota. The cabin is still owned by her family, and her racing calendars, photos, and racing bike are on display. Anderson died in 1965 at age 90.
For more information on Tillie Anderson and other cycling topics, check out the booklist:
This collection looks at bicycles and how humans have ridden into the history books and defied trends and prejudice one pedal stroke at a time. Discover the origins of the Tour de France, how bicycles can save the economy and how thousands of bicycles ended up at the U.S. - Mexico border.
The story of the nineteenth-century women's bicycle riding champion, a bicycle and unconventional new clothes that enabled her to train as a speed racer.