Freewheeler (Extract)

Extract of an article in Issue 21, February 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The young Jewish woman who defied convention in 1894 with a record-making trip around the world by bicycle On a beautiful June day in 1894, Annie Cohen Kopchovsky arrived by horse-drawn carriage at the State House in Boston, where 500 enthusiastic suffragists, friends and curious onlookers were waiting for her. Annie was dressed in typical late Victorian attire- a long, dark skirt, a tailored jacket, and a white shirt billowing below the jacket's three-quarter sleeves. But what Annie Kopchovsky was about to do was anything but typical. A 23-year-old Jewish woman and mother of three who lived in a tenement in Boston's west end, she was about to set off on a tour around the world by bicycle, a feat that had never been accomplished by a woman. "Annie Londonderry's Extraordinary Ride" is Peter Zheutlin's entertaining account of his great-great aunt's adventures. Zheutlin, a freelance journalist, recounts that Annie Kopchovsky carried an advertising placard for the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company of New Hampshire and agreed to use the company's name as her own surname. This change was crucial for Annie, who was determined to conceal her marital status as well as her ethnic identity. As far as the world was concerned, Annie Londonderry was a single woman of indeterminate religion and ethnicity, a profile calculated to deflect unwelcome scrutiny during her trip. Kopchovsky was motivated by her insatiable desire for attention and fame as well as money. The adventure was set in motion by a pair of Boston industrialists who wagered $10,000 against her having the stamina and gumption to travel the world on her bike in 15 months. The wager stipulated that along the way she had to earn $5,000 to cover her expenses, and she earned her first one hundred dollars by carrying the placard that gave her new name. Kopchovsky's audacious challenge was hatched just four years after another woman, Nellie Bly, a journalist for Joseph Pulitzer's "New York World," convinced her editors to finance her trip around the world to challenge the record of the fictional Phileas Fogg, the hero of Jules Verne's novel "Around the World in Eighty Days." After Bly broke "Fogg's record" in 72 days, her accomplishment spawned a surge of imitators that Zheutlin wryly observes supplied the public with late-19th century versions of reality shows. Zheutlin sets Annie Londonderry's cycling feat against the backdrop of late 19th century Western society. Kopchovsky's story shows that the bicycle was a symbol of personal as well as political power. Women of the time took to the bicycle as a means of independent living and travel, a way of finding a life beyond the expected roles of mother and wife. For early feminists, the bicycle was an important tool for reinventing themselves. The famous suffragist Susan B. Anthony said that "bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world." This newly found emancipation was challenged by myths. Some thought that riding a bicycle could sexually stimulate a woman or compromise virginity. But Annie Londonderry paid no attention to these ridiculous notions. With virtually no prior physical training, she set off from Boston to Manhattan on that June day on her unwieldy 42-pound Columbia bicycle, constantly mindful of not getting her skirts caught in the spokes of the gigantic front wheel. Judy Bolton-Fasman writes a weekly column for the Jewish Advocate in Boston. Extract of an article in Issue 21, February 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.