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Bicycling: Wheels For Women’s Independence

Mrs_ F_ M_ Cossitt, first woman to ride a bicycle in New York_ 1888

Mrs. F.M. Cossitt, the first woman to ride a bicycle in New York – 1888 (Photo from Simply Grove blog)

by Heather Harris Brady

Dateline October 20 1895: The most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman

In the late 1800’s two forces developed simultaneously, bicycle engineering and the women’s suffrage movement.

I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world, upon whose spinning-wheel we must all learn to ride, or fall into the sluiceways of oblivion and despair.” – Frances Willard

Frances Willard, founding member of the WCTU, took up the sport at the age of 53 in Evanston IL. But it caught the fancy of young women as well.

On June 25, 1894, Latvian immigrant 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 took off. Fifteen months later (October 20 1895) one New York newspaper called it “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.” See her route here. (Source)

The trip was reportedly set in motion by a wager that required Annie not only to circle the earth by bicycle in 15 months, but to earn $5,000 en route, as well. This was no mere test of a woman’s physical endurance and mental fortitude; it was a test of a woman’s ability to fend for herself in the world. While Annie died in obscurity, a documentary about her extraordinary stroke debuted in April 2013. During her trip she adopted clothing more suitable to riding, including men’s attire and bloomers.

As we know, this was not always well-received! In Norwich, New York in 1895, a group of young men pledged not to associate with any woman in bloomers and to use “all honorable means to render such costumes unpopular in the community where I reside.” (Link, bottom page)

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.”