March is Women’s History Month, when bike bloggers quote Susan B. Anthony ( bicycling “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world”) and temperance reformer Frances Willard, who used bicycling as a metaphor for control over her destiny.
Their achievements are notable, but let’s talk about the first woman to wheel her bicycle around the world: 24-year-old Annie Cohen Kopchovsky who changed her name to Annie Londonderry in a wager to show that women are capable of anything a man can do.
Annie Cohen Kopchovsky was a Jewish immigrant mother of three when she accepted a challenge to bike around the world. She became a rolling billboard to fund her trip, changing her name to “Annie Londonderry” in exchange for $100 from Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company.
Londonderry departed Boston in June, 1894 to great fanfare, carrying only a change of underwear and a pearl handled revolver. She pedaled west but nearly gave up the effort after it took her three months just to reach Chicago.
For the return trip, she exchanged her 42-pound Columbia women’s bicycle for a 21 pound made-in-Chicago Sterling Roadster — a brakeless fixed gear, no less — and dumped her heavy skirts for bloomers. She discovered the fun practicality of cycling with this equipment change, detoured to New York City, and in November caught a steamer to France.
From Marseille, she sailed to Egypt to make brief cycling forays through the Orient before continuing by ship to bike visits in Sri Lanka, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong and Lushun. Londonderry claims she wheeled through portions of China, where she witnessed, first hand, the atrocities of the First Sino-Japanese War.
After a quick trip across Japan, she sailed across the Golden Gate in March, 1895, where the Chronicle reports “She has a degree of self-assurance somewhat unusual to her sex.”
She cycled down the California Central Valley, following railroad rights of ways to reach Arizona and hiking dozens of miles across the desert after suffering a flat tire.
She arrived in Chicago September, 1895, collected her $10,000 prize and moved her family to New York where she wrote features for Pulitzer’s New York World. Her first story begins, “I am a journalist and a ‘new woman,’ if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do.”
A century after her fame faded, a distant cousin, journalist Peter Zheutlin, researched her adventures and published them in his fascinating book Around The World On Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride.