Guest post by Gillian Klempner Willman
In 1895, Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky, a 23-year-old Jewish immigrant and mother of three, was visiting Stockton, California while on a cycling journey around the world — the result of an alleged bet among men that no woman could accomplish such a feat. Annie’s challenge was to circle the globe by bicycle in 15 months, earning $5,000 en route.
This was not only a test of a woman’s physical endurance and mental fortitude, but also of her ability to fend for herself in a man’s world. When Annie set out from the steps of the Boston Statehouse on a 42-pound Columbia bicycle she pedaled to prove the men wrong and to score a victory for the “new woman.”
“You want to know what I think about the bicycle for the physical development of women?” she mused rhetorically to a reporter for the Stockton Evening Mail that day in 1895. “I know from experience that there is nothing better than a wheel to build a woman up. The fact that women will wear corsets when riding is the reason so many suffer from the exercise. Tell the women to discard their corsets. If women will exercise properly on a wheel, they will have nicely rounded figures, bright eyes, and healthy cheeks, and will feel well the year ‘round.”
When she began her ride, Annie was neither a cyclist nor a feminist, but she gradually became an outspoken supporter of both causes. The (often) positive attention she garnered throughout her journey demonstrated that femininity and physical strength were not mutually exclusive. To the readers of the Stockton Evening Mail, she not only advocated for cycling and the benefits it could deliver to women, but for something more — the liberation of women from their corsets, both literally and figuratively.
Annie’s journey was more than one of miles: She left in full skirts as a 19th Century housewife and returned in bloomers as a celebrated (and controversial) heroine of a new era. At the time, The New York World called her trip “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman” and said it marked the birth of “the new woman” — independent, dynamic, and free.
There’s no way to measure the impact of Annie’s ride on her Victorian peers — of how many women she inspired to take to their wheels, to pursue their dreams and create their own destinies.
But Annie continues to inspire women today. A Washington, DC-based documentary film director, I’ve made it my mission to bring Annie’s story to life for film audiences — and, after seven years in production, The New Woman: Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky will premiere at the DC Independent Film Festival tonight! If you’re a DC local or here for the Summit, click here for tickets!
Carolyn SzczepanskiCarolyn joined the League in March 2012, after two years at the Alliance for Biking & Walking. In addition to managing the League's blog, magazine and other communications, Carolyn organized the first National Women's Bicycling Summit and launched the League's newest program: Women Bike. Before she crossed over to advocacy, she was a professional journalist for nearly 10 years.