Bicycles Gave Women “Freedom and Self-Reliance”

(p. B8) The decade before the 20th century began saw an explosion in bicycle sales and cycling in general. The so-called “safety bicycle,” with wheels of equal size and a chain mechanism that allowed pedaling to drive the back wheel, along with the arrival of the pneumatic tire, had transformed cycling from an acrobatic and somewhat perilous enterprise into a pleasurable, less hazardous and even utilitarian recreation. Bicycles were mass produced as men increasingly used them to commute to work.

Especially significant was that women, for the first time, took to the activity, relishing the freedom it gave them from the restrictions of a homebound existence. Corsets and billowy skirts even gave way to bloomers so that women could ride comfortably. The bicycle was very much a part of the early women’s movement.

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling,” the suffragist Susan B. Anthony said in an 1896 interview in The New York World with the pioneering journalist Nellie Bly. “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. It makes her feel as if she were independent. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

If ever there was an avatar of these combined social trends, “of free, untrammeled womanhood,” it was Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a Latvian immigrant who in June 1894, at about age 23, cycled away from her Boston home, leaving a husband and three small children, for a journey around the world.

. . .

Kopchovsky’s celebrity, though it lingered through the completion of her trip, was short-lived, and her adventure would probably have remained obscure were it not for Peter Zheutlin, a journalist and cycling hobbyist who, decades after her death, became intrigued by what little he knew of Kopchovsky, his great-grandfather’s sister. For his book “Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride” (2007), he scoured newspaper archives from around the world, dug up family relics and plumbed the memory of Kopchovsky’s only survivor, a granddaughter.

For the full obituary, see:

Bruce Weber. “Annie Londonderry.” The New York Times (Monday, November 11, 2019): B8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Nov. 6, 2019, and has the title “Overlooked No More: Annie Londonderry, Who Traveled the World by Bicycle.”)

The book mentioned above, is:

Zheutlin, Peter. Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride. New York: Citadel Press Books, 2007.

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