One Big Pedal Forward for Womankind

October 9th, 2009 in Women's History by Tracey McCormick

Michael Jordan. Lance Armstrong. David Beckham. All international sports stars. But who was the first?

The first not only rode a bicycle around the world in 1894 but also raised $5,000 along the way.

And she was a woman.

Annie Cohen Kopchovsky (aka Londonderry) was a housewife and mother of three, and she put it all on hiatus to circumpedal the globe.

For full effect, she announced her intentions at the Massachusetts State House, and the suffragists among the 500 folks present were delighted. Let’s remember that at the time of her announcement it had been over 45 years since Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her disenfranchised sisters met in 1848 in Seneca Falls, NY to discuss the possibility of women getting the right to vote. Since that historic meeting the coin lady (Susan B. Anthony), Stanton, and others had been working relentlessly – writing, speaking, advocating, forming associations, and overall raising Cain to win women the right to vote.

But sometimes a movement needs more than speeches and meetings. Sometimes a movement needs a symbolic act, an action that manifests all the talking, all the theory, and all the meetings into tangible, forward movement.

Annie Londonderry literally pedaled the women’s movement forward.

But as her great-grand nephew Peter Zheutlin reported in the Christian Science Monitor, this trip was personal, not political. More Madonna than Hillary, Annie chose to do things her way instead of the usual way.

Reports of her trip are varied and contradictory, as Annie herself was more interested in self-promotion and shock value than following a direct ‘round-the-world course or telling a true tale. She turned herself into a rolling billboard, carrying advertisers’ banners over the cobblestone streets in different cities. She was also often mistaken for a man because she dressed and acted like one.

Annie had no problem backpedaling, and turned east after pedaling out west to Chicago, where she changed out her woman’s bicycle for a man’s. By her accounts, she visited the exotic locations of Alexandria, Colombo, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. She regaled audiences and the press with tales of her freezing in Siberia, taking a bullet in the Sino-Japanese War, and hunting tigers in India with German royalty. Hunting tigers on a bicycle? Give that woman the right to vote.

Regardless of how many tall tales are contained in all the tales Annie told, one thing is certain: her fifteen-month trip demonstrated to the world that if women like Annie had enough chutzpah to travel the world by themselves (sometimes on a bike, sometimes on a steamer, sometimes, perhaps, on an elephant), then they certainly were not the fairer, weaker sex that Victorian society had insisted they were. Indeed, upon her return the New York World (whatever happened to the World?) proclaimed her feat, “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.”

And 26 years after her fact-and-fiction-filled journey, the women of American were given the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

Thank goodness for visible forward movement.

About the Author: Tracey's interests in history range from the ancient Greeks to the medieval monks to the women of the American West. She holds a B.A. in History, Math/Philosophy, and the Classics. When not writing, editing, or teaching, she's out exploring, via her mountain bike, the Anasazi ruins in and around her home state of Colorado.

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2 Responses to “One Big Pedal Forward for Womankind”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Neal Werner. Neal Werner said: Great History: One Big Pedal Forward for Womankind [...]

  2. [...] Read Annie Londonderry’s story here.   [...]

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