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Bicycling Provided the "Wheels" for Women’s Independence



                           

                                          (Mrs. F.M. Cossitt, the first woman to ride a bicycle in New York – 1888)

In the late 1800′s two forces developed simultaneously, bicycle engineering and the women’s suffrage movement.

I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world, upon whose spinning-wheel we must all learn to ride, or fall into the sluiceways of oblivion and despair.” – Frances Willard Frances Willard, founding member of the WCTU, took up the sport at the age of 53 in Evanston IL. But it caught the fancy of young women as well.

On June 25, 1894, Latvian immigrant Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a young mother of three small children, stood before a crowd of 500 friends, family, suffragists and curious onlookers at the Massachusetts State House. Then, declaring she would circle the world, she climbed onto a 42-pound Columbia bicycle and took off. Fifteen months later (October 20 1895) one New York newspaper called it “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.” *See her route below 

The trip was reportedly set in motion by a wager that required Annie not only to circle the earth by bicycle in 15 months, but to earn $5,000 en route, as well. This was no mere test of a woman’s physical endurance and mental fortitude; it was a test of a woman’s ability to fend for herself in the world. While Annie died in obscurity, a documentary about her extraordinary stroke debuted in April 2013. During her trip she adopted clothing more suitable to riding, including men’s attire and bloomers.

As we know, this was not always well-received! In Norwich, New York in 1895, a group of young men pledged not to associate with any woman in bloomers and to use “all honorable means to render such costumes unpopular in the community where I reside.” 

Susan B. Anthony told the New York World’s Nellie Bly that bicycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

This promotional piece for the Sterling Cycle Works appeared in the May 11, 1895 edition of The Bearings, a Chicago-based cycling periodical.

 
                                                                            

On June 25, 1894, Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a young mother of three small children, stood before a crowd of 500 friends, family, suffragists and curious onlookers at the Massachusetts State House. Then, declaring she would circle the world, she climbed onto a 42-pound Columbia bicycle and “sailed away like a kite down Beacon Street.”

Fifteen months later one New York newspaper called it “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.”

The trip was reportedly set in motion by a wager that required Annie not only to circle the earth by bicycle in 15 months, but to earn $5,000 en route, as well. This was no mere test of a woman’s physical endurance and mental fortitude; it was a test of a woman’s ability to fend for herself in the world.

Annie turned every Victorian notion of female propriety on its ear. Not only did she abandon, temporarily, her role of wife and mother, but for most of the journey she rode a man’s bicycle attired in a man’s riding suit. She earned her way selling photographs of herself, appearing as an attraction in stores, and by turning herself into a mobile billboard, renting space on her body and her bicycle to advertisers eager to benefit from this colorful spectacle on wheels.

Outlandish, brash, and charismatic – a master of public relations, a consummate self-promoter, and a skillful creator of her own myth – Annie was a woman of boundless chutzpah. Indeed, as Annie Cohen Kopchovsky reinvented herself as a new woman – the daring globetrotter and adventurer, "Mlle. Annie Londonderry" – she became one of the most celebrated women of the gay ’90s. Yet, until now, her remarkable story has been lost to history.

 


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