In 1894, the 'New Woman' Was a Bicyclist Who Changed History
"I know that I am taking a great risk and might never again see my native land. But then, the grim shadow of death is ever at one's elbow, and my chances of not getting through safely are not sufficiently great to deter me from making the experiment."
Those were the words of Annie "Londonderry" Kopchovsky, who in 1894 set out to circumnavigate the globe via bicycle and win a $5,000 wager that a woman couldn't perform such a feat within 15 months.
Now a new short documentary film, The New Woman: Annie "Londonderry" Kopchovsky, tells her story. It's a marvel of self-promotion and audacity that ended up earning her global fame as a specimen of the "New Woman" who was riding into freedom aboard a two-wheeler.
Kopchovsky was a 23-year-old Jewish Latvian immigrant who lived with her husband and three children under the age of six in Boston's tenement-crowded West End when she decided to take off on her quest. In the year and a half that followed, she suffered false starts and reversals; traded in her 42-pound bike for a lighter model; changed from traditional women's clothes to bloomers and at last to a men's outfit; suffered two serious crashes; and weathered charges that she was a fraud who rode trains and ships as much as she pedaled. But in the end, she made the deadline and claimed the prize.
It turns out to be true that she did load her bike aboard steamships and locomotives at several key points in her journey. But the film, which is based on a book by Kopchovsky's great-grandnephew Peter Zheutlin, Around the World on Two Wheels, argues that she more than proved her mettle. She cycled over rough ground and railroad tracks for hundreds, even thousands, of miles. She slept out in the open at a time when that was a shocking thing for a woman to do, although she wrote, "I'm afraid I was a sorry specimen of a tramp." And she financed the whole thing with shrewd and unembarrassed self-promotion, selling opportunities to emblazon product names on her clothing, probably a first for a female athlete in the United States. A spot on her left breast went for $100. Of her sojourn in Paris, she wrote, "I was quite the rage there as an advertising medium."
The film reveals that Kopchovsky (the moniker "Londonderry" was borrowed from the spring water company that signed on as her first sponsor) didn’t exactly make her family happy with her adventure. Her granddaughter, who is interviewed for the film, says, "I think that for my grandmother's independence, there was a heavy price." It seems that after her return, Kopchovsky never again abandoned her role as the mother and grandmother of a growing family, and wouldn’t speak of her journey when her husband was in the room.
But she was nonetheless part of a movement, which has been well-documented in books such as Sue Macy's Wheels of Change, in which women rode bicycles to achieve unprecedented freedom and autonomy. As Zheutlin says in the film, "In some ways, you could literally say that women rode bicycles to suffrage."
There's a lot that remains unclear about Kopchovsky's ride. Just what happened during her time near the Chinese-Korean war zone? Did she have a romance with a male cycling champion in California? How many miles did she actually pedal?
One thing is for sure: for 15 months she lived on not much more than her wits and two wheels, and she didn't much care what people thought. In her words, "I cannot afford conventionalities to impede my progress."