On International Women’s Day, I’m revisiting my post about talented female racer “Tillie the Terrible Swede” Anderson, who rocked the world of cycling — and of fashion — in the late 19th century, and a favorite children’s book about her remarkable life and accomplishments.
In Tillie the Terrible Swede: How One Woman, a Sewing Needle, and a Bicycle Changed History (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2011), Sue Stauffacher relates the true story of Tillie Anderson, who was born in Sweden in 1875, immigrated to the U.S. as a young women, fell in love with bicycle racing and eventually claimed the women’s world championship.
Accompanied by Sarah McMenemy’s pretty period illustrations, Stauffacher’s narrative for readers of ages 4 – 8 unfolds against the backdrop of cycling’s role in empowering women during the late 19th century and chronicles a talented woman’s pursuit of her dreams.
Anderson first spied a bicycle through the window of the shop where she worked as a seamstress and was immediately captivated, not by riding around maypoles, as women of that era did, but by “speedy, scorchy” racing. But there was a problem: “Tillie had found that riding in dresses and skirts meant spilling, not speeding, falling not flying.”
Anderson used her sewing skills to create a close-fitting cycling costume that scandalized her friends and neighbors. But the young woman’s gifts as a racer proved themselves, first in century riding and then in the velodrome. Anderson became a sensation in bicycle racing, the most popular spectator sport in the 1890s. (Reader’s will find a listing of the Anderson’s record-breaking victories in the book’s overleaf.)
Stauffacher, author of the Animal Rescue Team series and titles such as Donut Head, not only wrote about Anderson, but also was inspired by her. After the book was published, she embarked on a “Tillie Ride,” a week-long, 264-mile ride from her home in Grand Rapids, Michigan to Chicago, Illinois. Stauffenacher stopped at schools along the way to teach children about America’s first women’s world cycling champion, and to deliver donated copies of her book to the Chicago Public Library.
Among the author’s goals was to “get kids excited about biking as a form of recreation and reading as a form of mental recreation.” In championing Tillie Anderson, Stauffacher has accomplished just that.