Welcome to our new feature, Kickass Women in History! This month’s Kickass Woman is Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, better known as Annie Londonderry. She bicycled around the world in 1895. She was the first woman to do it, and it took her fifteen months.
Annie was a Jewish woman born in what is now Lativa in 1870. She and her family immigrated to the US when Annie was quite young. She married Max Kopchovsky and they had three children. According to legend, Annie’s journey began when two businessmen made a wager that a woman could bicycle around the world in fifteen months. Annie, who was twenty-four at the time, agreed to be the woman to settle the wager. She would be paid $5000 if she made it. Then, the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company paid her $100 to change her name to Londonderry and carry a placard with the company logo on her ride. She started her ride in 1894 and concluded in 1895.
Annie was an excellent cyclist, as well as an excellent, if not always truthful, storyteller and businesswoman. She supported herself on her trip by lecturing about her life and her trip. During the course of her ride, Annie’s attire changed. She started her trip in regular women’s clothing. Partly through the trip she started wearing bloomers, and eventually took to wearing the standard cycling outfit worn by men.
I was inspired to write about Annie after I read the Victorian novel Miss Cayley’s Adventures, which deals in part with a Victorian woman who sells bicycles as she travels around Europe. Bicycling had an enormous influence on women’s rights in Europe and America. Bicycling improved women’s health, encouraged changes in their clothing, and increased their sense of freedom and independence. Susan B. Anthony said:
“I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood.”
The story of women and cycling is fascinating. People feared that it would damage women’s health and lead to immorality. People also feared that women would have lascivious sensations while riding bikes, which is why women’s handlebars were positioned in a more upright position than men’s. As bikes became more popular, corsets became less popular and bloomers and divided skirts were all the rage. Previously, the model woman was indoorsy and frail and could not expose her ankle. By the early 1900’s, women were openly exercising outdoors, ankles flashing in the wind, as models of the ‘New Woman’. While conservative forces railed against the bicycle, women persisted in riding.
Annie completed her trip in the required fifteen months. After the trip, Annie and her family moved to New York and Annie became a journalist. Among other things, she wrote about her trip under the byline “Nellie Bly, Jr.” (Nellie Bly had retired by then). She wrote,
“I am a journalist and ‘a new woman’ if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do.“
Here’s some resources if you want to learn more about Annie Londonderry or about the link between cycling and feminism.
- AnnieLondonderry.com has tons of information about Annie and about the history of cycling.
- This article on BrainPickings has a hilarious list of “Do’s and Don’ts” for Women Cyclists, from 1895, including “Don’t be a fright,” and “Don’t cultivate ‘bicycle face.'”
I haven’t read these books, but you can bet they are on my TBR:
A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride a Bicycle. Frances E. Willard. 1895
Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride. Peter Zheutlin
Bicycling for Ladies. Maria Ward, 1896
I was fascinated to find these articles about women’s cycling in Afghanistan, where cycling is bringing similar opportunities for women today, and where women are facing similar pushback:
- Biking Towards Women’s Rights in Afghanistan by Sarah GoodyearMen driving by insult them. Boys along the road throw rocks at them. Sometimes they don’t have enough money to buy adequate food to fuel their rides. Every day, they are reminded that it is taboo in Afghan society for a woman to get on a bicycle. And still they ride.
“They tell us that it is not our right to ride our bikes in the streets and such,” says Marjan Sidiqqi, one of the young women on the team. “We tell them that this is our right and that they are taking our right away. Then we speed off.”
- Mountain2Mountain supports the Afghan National Cycling Team, and also has a profile of their efforts and of the team’s significance.