When Tessa Hulls looks at a bicycle, she doesn't see it as a cool toy she can use for adventures. She sees it as a cool toy she can use for adventures and a tool for social liberation.
In the last eight years, the polymath visual artist/comic/writer/adventurer has biked all over the planet, rolling over approximately 14,000 miles of paved road and donkey trail at 12 miles per hour. She rode solo from Southern California to Maine, and she's ridden all over Alaska, Ghana, Mexico, and Cuba.
The people she met along the way were extraordinarily generous, but every day, without fail, Hulls would hear the same refrain: "You know, a woman can't travel alone." Many wouldn't believe her when she told them otherwise. Encountering that level of bullshit and disbelief sent her down a three-month research rabbit hole, and she's since emerged with a new line on her résumé: feminist historian with a focus on little-known turn-of-the-20th-century adventurers.
As a lecturer with the Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau, she's been touring around Washington with a presentation on the stories of women who traveled solo in the early 1900s. On January 30 at Rhino Room, she'll give a talk called "Women, Trans, and Femme Riders in Early Cycling History," which is packed with fascinating, newly resurfaced primary documents about the first female-identified riders.
"I think the strongest critique of the system lies in demonstrating the viability of living outside of it," Hulls said as we sipped tea at a cafe. "And so for me, this talk is an answer to being told that I can't do what I've been doing, and what women have been doing for 150 years."
As Hulls explains in her lecture, which she describes as "equal parts history lesson and badasses doing crazy shit on bikes," the US bicycle craze happened in the 1890s, when the first reliable bicycles were invented. Since it was cheaper than buying a horse, and since the automobile hadn't been invented yet, people saw biking as the future of transportation.
But the bike also, Hulls argues, allowed women to leave the house unchaperoned. The arrival of the bike coincided with the women's suffrage movement, which led to "women being allowed to socialize in packs for the first time," and they rode bicycles to spread the word about getting out the vote.
As Hulls moves forward in history, she highlights the adventures of Annie Kopchovsky, the first woman to bike around the world; Martha Hughes Cannon, the first female state senator in Utah; Frances Willard, a leader of the Christian temperance movement who spoke about the bicycle in terms of political empowerment; and several other women who used bikes as part of their gender activism in some way.
Though Hulls reckons that the number of women participating in biking today is higher than it was during the early 20th century, she thinks the culture has backslid in some ways.
"In the old [bike] ads, you see packs of women riding on bicycles, and women riding on the front of tandems, and stuff that just still isn't really a norm now," she said. "Now there's this moment where we're trying to get back to where we were in the 1890s, which is a little bit depressing. It's just interesting thinking about how if you don't keep pushing for the advancement of culture, things can quietly digress."