22 August 2007

Annie Londonderry's extraordinary journey--and the thanks I owe her for it

There's so much Cycling Sisters news that it gets hard to keep up with everything in a timely fashion, so I may have showed up a little late to this party. Sorry about that.

Annie Londonderry--the first woman to bicycle around the world
"On June 25, 1894, Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a young mother of three small children, stood before a crowd of 500 friends, family, suffragists and curious onlookers at the Massachusetts State House. Then, declaring she would circle the world, she climbed onto a 42-pound Columbia bicycle and 'sailed away like a kite down Beacon Street.'

"Fifteen months later one New York newspaper called it 'the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.'"

Now I'd call that an extraordinary journey by anyone, regardless of sex and/or gender. How have I not heard about this person until now? Is it because "the first woman [anything]" tends to be forgotten by later generations? Is it because "women's rights" is something that everyone takes for granted these days--unless the a-word is mentioned, or some right-wing talking head complains that women are ruining the country by voting left?

I don't know. I wish I did, because then maybe I'd be able to respond to those people without getting in a screechy high-pitched expletive-laden hissy fit that has the unfortunate result of going a long way toward proving their very point. There's no quicker way to shut off my brain than to accuse me of thinking only with my inferior female hormones. Strange, I know.

So what was the world like back then?
Women on Wheels: The Bicycle and the Women’s Movement of the 1890s
"Cycling in the 1890s was nothing less than 'a general intoxication, an eruption of exuberance like a seismic tremor that shook the economic and social foundations of society and rattled the windows of its moral outlook.' (2) Nowhere was this more evident than in the role of the bicycle in the changing lives of American women. Indeed, the woman’s movement of the 1890s and the cycling craze became so inextricably intertwined that in 1896 Susan B. Anthony told the New York World’s Nellie Bly that bicycling had 'done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.' (3)
"The social changes wrought by the bicycle were hardly limited to women’s fashion. A woman with a bicycle no longer had to depend on a man for transportation and she was free to come and go at will. She experienced a new kind of physical thrill made possible by the speed of the bike. The bicycle imparted a parity with men that was both new and heady. In short, 'more and more women came to regard the cycle as a freedom machine.' (20)"


"Freedom machine"--I like the sound of that. Freedom from car ownership. Freedom from the CTA. Freedom to coast nonchalantly between two lanes of vehicles stopped bumper to bumper at a red light. Freedom to cover more distance on a trail by utilizing an authorized vehicle. Freedom to go where I want, when I want, by myself, on my own terms, gas prices be damned--hell yeah. Freedom from an oppressive male-dominated society? Hadn't thought about that one.

I usually don't think about it--in the context of bicycling, anyway--because I usually don't need to, thanks to women like Annie Londonderry at the turn of another century turning the world upside down as they pedaled through it. But that doesn't mean we should go ahead and forget all about them.

Ladies, I thank you.


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