“I am a journalist and ‘a new woman,’
if that term means that I believe I can
do anything that any man can do.”
You’ve probably heard the refrain “Behind every great man, there’s a great woman.” Except nope, because that cutesy phrase only serves to reinforce the historically dominant notion that women should not draw attention to themselves; instead, they should stay on the sidelines, supporting men, never causing a fuss and never showing their ankles. There’s nothing wrong with a woman who chooses to stay at home and be a great supporter of her family, so long as that is her choice. Sadly, however, for most of history, women were denied any other options, a fact that didn’t sit right with one Annie Londonderry. Whether the world was ready for it or not, she was going to roll her way into women’s rights on a revolutionary invention that was shaking up society: the bicycle.
When Annie found her way to fame in the 1890s, women’s rights were politically taking center stage at long last, and it was thanks in no small part to the humble bicycle. Seriously! In 1896 Susan B. Anthony told the New York World’s Nellie Bly (a journalist famous for her journey around the globe) that the bicycle had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” It was an international symbol of the “New Woman,” a lady who (like the male “dandy”) pushed back against Victorian ideals. New Women wore keys around their necks to symbolize their ownership of property; they smoked, gambled, and took jobs to obtain financial independence; they even wore bloomers or divided skirts so it’d be easier to ride—you guessed it—their bicycles. An 1894 periodical said the bicycle “fills a much-needed want for women in any station of life,” for it let women at the fin de siècle get the heck out of the house and go wherever they wanted without asking for men’s permission or their money. In Wheel within a Wheel, Women’s Christian Temperance Union president Frances Willard (who learned to ride a bike at age fifty-three) called her two-wheeled ride a “new implement of power” that helped her escape the long skirts that tripped her up while walking. “I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel,” Susan B. told Nellie. “It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammeled womanhood.”
But of course, the New Woman and her two-wheeled getaway mobile were not without their share of controversy. Political cartoons, especially those in Punch! magazine, portrayed the New Woman as boring, ugly, masculine, man-hating brow-beaters (kind of like the way feminists get smeared by conservative media today). Pundits (i.e., men) feared the bike was sexually stimulating for women, or that it might cause them adverse health issues (keep in mind that this was a time when some people thought traveling twenty kilometers per hour on a train would give you a degenerative nervous illness, so…). The bloomers that made riding easier were “outrageous” and an “abomination,” and women were arrested for wearing them in the streets (remember Mrs. Nova?). Some men even formed groups that threatened to stop communicating with any woman who wore such clothing (to which the ladies were probably like, Good, see ya).
Both Susan B. and Elizabeth Cady Stanton pushed back (basically “Can I live?”), and the Chicago Daily News scathingly rebutted the jerks in an 1894 article titled “Woman and Her Bicycle”:
When woman wants to learn anything or do anything useful or even have any fun there is always someone to solemnly warn her that it is her duty to keep well. Meanwhile in many states she can work in factories ten hours a day, she can stand behind counters in badly ventilated stores from 8 o’clock to 6, she can bend over the sewing machine for about 5 cents an hour and no one cares enough to protest. But when these same women, condemned to sedentary lives indoors, find a cheap and delightful way of getting the fresh air and exercise they need so sorely there is a great hue and cry about their physical welfare.
All of which brings us back to Annie. Born to a Jewish family in Latvia as Annie Cohen, in 1875, at age four or five, she immigrated with her family to America. The Cohens settled in Boston, a city plagued by anti-Semitism, and lived in a tiny tenement in one of the most ethnically mixed neighborhoods in America. By age eighteen, Annie was selling advertisements to newspapers and had married a devout Jewish man named Max Kopchovsky; she had her first baby nine months later, and two more by 1892. By the time she would decide she was ready for change, Annie would have a trio of children ages five, three, and two. She admitted that she “didn’t want to spend my life at home with a baby under my apron every year.” And so, determined to escape her dull life and a firm believer in woman’s suffrage, Annie concocted a plan. By capitalizing on the world’s concurrent obsessions with Jules Verne–inspired “ ’round the world” adventures, bicycling, and the battle for equal rights, she would have her escape.
On June 25, 1894, at just twenty-three years old, Annie marched in front of the Massachusetts statehouse with a group of prominent women’s rights activists. After an introductory speech about how “women should have the same chances as men,” the activists told everyone about an offer Annie had received from two wealthy Boston businessmen: if she could bike her way around the world in fifteen months, as the cyclist Thomas Stevens had done in the 1880s, she would receive $10,000 from them—provided, of course, that she didn’t accept a single dollar of charity on the road and earned $5,000 to support herself before returning.
It was a pretty awesome challenge—and a great reward—except that none of it was true. Annie likely invented the story of the wager in order to drum up press for her trip, and it totally worked. People were excited, and Annie capitalized on that enthusiasm: she offered to sell parts of both her body and her bike for ad dollars, and people took the bait. The Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company gave her $100 to go by “Annie Londonderry” instead of “Annie Kopchovsky.” (And this in a world where female sports stars and women with endorsement deals were unheard of!)
With sponsorship in hand, the plan was set: her husband and young children gave her their support (her brother, despite being in the crowd of five hundred, didn’t even say goodbye) and the New York World called her trip “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.”
That is, it would be extraordinary if she could pull it off. Annie had never ridden a bike her in life, except a couple of times the day before announcing the so-called wager, and at five-foot-three she weighed no more than a hundred pounds. Her Columbia women’s bicycle was a hefty forty-two pounds, and even though she packed only a fresh pair of underwear and a pearl-handled revolver, she was encumbered on the ride by her skirts and constricting tops. The bike paths were rocky and sandy and often far from civilization; she was limited to a speed of about ten miles per hour, and she had absolutely no muscle or tolerance for this kind of exercise, especially when some days saw her eating only an apple and sleeping under a bridge. After starting with a nine-hour day in June, it took her until September just to make it from Boston to Chicago via New York (where she stayed for almost a month with friends). By the time she did reach Chicago, she had lost twenty pounds. The New York Times reported that she was giving up.
In fact, it was in Chicago that Annie became determined to shrug off the social constraints assigned to her. She bought a twenty-one-pound men’s Sterling bicycle and completely remade her cycling costume, throwing away the loose-skirted bloomers and throwing on a much more streamlined pair of leggings, a sweater, and a cap. Annie would say later, “I firmly believe that if I had worn skirts I should not have been able to make the trip,” for her heavy bloomers were “torture” and “ridiculous.” Instead, her neat knickerbockers and leggings allowed for much better freedom of movement…and led to two hundred marriage proposals, if her account is to be believed (and why wouldn’t you believe that, really). With kickin’ new duds, she left Chicago newly inspired, but with only eleven months to go and lots of that $5,000 left to earn.
Fortunately, Annie was amazingly good at getting the Victorian public to crack open their pocketbooks. After heading all the way back to New York, she hopped on a boat bound for Le Havre, France, where she promptly charmed the bloomers off everyone and set to work earning that five grand. She sold signed photos of herself, organized meet-and-greets, put her name on positive product testimonials, presented lectures to sold out halls through which she would pedal to wild applause, and even sold off her clothing and bicycle for advertisements: $400 bought space on her left boob, $100 for her right bloomer. The American press wasn’t sure what to make of Annie: the Buffalo Express was impressed with her ingenuity, but the Pittsburgh Chronicle-Telegraph called it “degrading.” Nevertheless, she had been an absolute delight in France, where one local paper announced that she had “captured the hearts of the people.”
Make no mistake, Annie was a master of the well-crafted public image. In one of her stories, she describes putting her “revolver against the head of the man” in a gang of three who jumped her from behind some trees; another story finds her hunting tigers with German royalty; yet another sees her languishing in a jail cell in China after falling in the ice and taking a bullet in the shoulder amid the Sino-Japanese War. There, “while thus imprisoned[,] a Japanese soldier dragged a Chinese prisoner up to my cell and killed him before my eyes, drinking his blood while the muscles were yet quivering” (which, since this is not Attack on Titan, is 100 percent clearly not the truth). To different papers, Annie would say that she was unmarried; that she had studied medicine for two years and was a master of the cultivation of physical beauty; that she had a degree in law or accounting; that she was an orphan heiress; that she was related to a congressman and then, later, a senator. She told one San Francisco paper that she made it to China from India by bike, and to another she claimed that her transportation there was via steamer. She knew exactly how to play each crowd like a fiddle, and her hustle would put most modern publicists to shame.
By the end of January 1895, Annie had made it from Paris to Marseille, leaving just eight months to get back to Chicago. She promptly jumped on a paquebot (a French mail boat) through the Mediterranean and made some short bike jaunts across Jerusalem and Yemen before heading for Colombo and Singapore, where the Straits Times was kind enough to describe her as a “short woman, with a not unpleasant face.” (The El Paso Daily Herald also said that “any horrid man who says she is not good looking ought to be taken out back of a cow shed and knocked in the head with an axe,” which, wow, okay.) From there she cycled through to Saigon, Port Arthur, Wei-Hei-Wei Harbor, and Yokohama while in the company of missionaries and war reporters. She arrived back in San Francisco on March 23, 1895, two months after she’d left France, with what the San Francisco Chronicle called “a degree of self-assurance somewhat unusual to her sex.”
But self-assurance can take you only so far, and the end of Annie’s journey was the most difficult. Already drained from all that pedaling, she was injured by a horse and buggy just outside San Francisco (though not badly, despite her telling the Chronicle that she coughed up blood for two days). The terrain was extremely challenging, too: biking next to the Southern Pacific Railway tracks across the punishing and still somewhat unsettled American South meant carrying her damaged bicycle, riding trains to avoid impenetrable muddy roads, and even breaking her wrist when colliding with a bunch of pigs. But Annie accomplished her goal, finally arriving back in Boston on September 24, fifteen months after her initial departure, just like she’d promised. As the world watched, Annie proved that women were just as capable as men. She was a living symbol of the New Woman.
World famous, $10,000 richer (possibly), forty pounds of muscle heavier, and no longer content to live nameless in a tenement, Annie moved her family to New York City, where under the byline “The New Woman,” she wrote a series of features for the New York World. Her first story (under the byline “Nellie Bly, Jr.,” in homage to her globetrotting predecessor) told the tale of her journey through “all parts of the globe in her bloomers.”
Amazingly, by her death in 1947 Annie had faded from popular memory. Only in the last decade did a distant nephew dig up her life’s history and set to work winning her modern recognition. His biography of Annie was published in 2007, finally making her story available to the world for the rest of time, just as Annie would have wanted.