GV writing professor publishes new book about forgotten women’s sport

By Elyse Greenwood | 1/28/19 10:46am

Courtesy / Roger Gilles

Roger Gilles, a writing professor at Grand Valley State University since 1992, explores the beginning of women’s athletics through his new book Women on the Move: The Forgotten Era of Women’s Bicycle Racing.

Three years in the making, Gilles’ book was published on Oct. 1, 2018. Its focus is on one of the most popular, yet most forgotten, sports in America in the 1890’s — women’s professional bicycle racing.

Crowds of four to five thousand came every night to watch these fast, dangerous and exhilarating races. Women raced over 20 mph on board tracks that were built in ballparks and auditoriums. However, with the growing popularity of automobiles, the sport met its abrupt end in 1902 and was forgotten for more than a hundred years. 

“When I learned about these women, I was amazed by how athletic and accomplished they were, and I considered it tragic that they’d been forgotten by history,” Gilles said. “I believe they were America’s first great women athletes and I think they should be celebrated as such.”

The most known racer of this time was a Swedish immigrant named Tillie Anderson. One crucial step for Gilles in creating this book was reaching out to Tillie’s family to gather new and unique information. Gilles mentioned that he couldn’t have written the book without the help of his wife and Anderson's family. 

“The second (woman I couldn’t have written the book without) is Alice Olson Roepke, Tillie’s grand-niece, who has curated Tillie’s scrapbooks and other memorabilia for her whole adult life, hoping that one day someone would help her revive Tillie’s name,” Gilles said. 

“Alice opened up that material, first to my wife and then to me — thousands of newspaper clippings, letters, contracts and photographs. I read all of it and did my own archival research, and once I digested it all I spent about three years writing the book.”

One of the many interesting aspects of this book is that some of the history it explores happened in GVSU’s own backyard. Several of the women’s races occurred in Michigan, including Grand Rapids in September of 1897. 

“To drum up interest before the race, the promoters had Tillie ride a demonstration quarter-mile sprint along Ionia Street,” Gilles said. “

The idea was to break the quarter-mile record for women. Thousands of people lined the street to watch, up on roofs and even on top of telephone poles. As Tillie made her sprint, the people crowded in so much that she was unable to ride at full speed and she failed to break the record. But that gives us an idea of how interested people were.”

Anderson, along with a couple other women racers, became household names during the era.

“(The book) gives us a window into a time in American history where women were taken seriously in sport for their athletic skill and the thrill of the competition,” said GVSU writing instructor Chris Haven. “I think Tillie Anderson, the primary subject of the book and the most successful of the bicycle racers, deserves to be remembered as a pioneer in American sports.” 

Women on the Move: The Forgotten Era of Women’s Bicycle Racing gives women like Anderson the honor they deserve by bringing their accomplishments back into the light. They helped pave the road for women athletes today, and their struggles to achieve greatness are still relatable for women athletes even today. 

“My experience shows me that history is still very much alive,” Gilles said. “There is plenty still to be discovered about the past. Who knew that 120 years ago there were half a dozen women athletes who defied the odds and became household names across the country? They faced all the challenges women athletes still face today — and they triumphed, at least for a few years. Because of the rather abrupt demise of the sport, their triumph was pretty much forgotten. But they did triumph, and people now should know about that.”

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