Throwback Thursday: Annie Londonderry, the Self-Promoting Feminist Who Biked Around the World

In 1894, a 24-year-old woman embarked on an around-the-world bicycle ride that captured international attention and defied gender expectations.

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Sep 22 2016, 1:48pm

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Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.

On September 24, 1895, on page six of the New York Times, readers encountered a peculiar and amazing story. Filed from Boston, it began, "Miss Annie Londonderry arrived in this city this morning after a trip around the world on a bicycle."

Londonderry was the first woman ever to ride around the world on a bike. She had left the Boston State House more than a year earlier, on June 20, 1894, wearing a dress and riding one of the few bikes designed for women during that era. It weighed about 40 pounds. On her return, she wore men's riding trousers, and sat atop a bike designed for men. It weighed half as much.

In addition to a passport filled with stamps, Londonderry brought home a broken arm—"the result of a bad fall sustained in one of the Western towns," according to the Times—and tales of adventure that were almost too good to be true, including some close calls when she rode through China during the First Sino-Japanese War.

Perhaps most amazing of all, however, was the pile of money Londonderry claimed to have amassed. As the Times explained, she had done the round-the-world trip on a $10,000 bet against two mysterious, unnamed Boston businessmen. She had to complete her journey in 15 months or less. Along the way, Londonderry claimed, she had earned an additional $3,000 performing lectures and selling advertisements, which she sewed to her clothing or hung from her bicycle. In addition to being a feminist trailblazer, she was a savvy marketer—in fact, she took the name Londonderry after selling her personal naming rights to the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company for a cool $100.

All told, her self-reported earnings from 15 months on the road would be equivalent to about $350,000 today.

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The bet complete, Londonderry resumed her life. She and her husband had a fourth child. They moved to the Bronx, New York. She wrote a brief column for the New York World. And then she faded away. The story of the first woman to circumnavigate the globe on a bike—displaying a level of resourcefulness and fitness that many people at the time did not believe women possessed—almost disappeared.

Decades passed. Londonderry's name existed in record books, but the details of her accomplishment were lost until the early 1990s, when a researcher contacted a man named Peter Zheutlin, Annie's great-grandnephew. Zheutlin had never heard of her. Nobody in his family had. But for the next decade, Zheutlin tried to learn as much as he could about the life and times of his distant relative, and eventually wrote a book about her.

What emerged was a character far more complicated than anyone had imagined.

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Londonderry, it turned out, was a bit of a fabulist. Only it wasn't a question of whether she had made it around the world. In the late 1800s, an unaccompanied woman on a bike was newsworthy, and Zheutlin found clips about her travels in newspaper archives along the route she took. No, what made Londonderry so intriguing was a more basic question: Why did she ride around the world in the first place?

Consider her age and circumstance. She began the journey at age 24, the wife of an Orthodox Jew with three small children. Women in her position rarely worked outside the home in 1894; it was already peculiar that she had a job selling advertisements around Boston before leaving on her trip. But for her to pack her bags and get on a bike? "That would raise eyebrows today if a mother of three children, ages like five, three, and two, were to suddenly disappear for 15 months on a bike trip," Zheutlin told VICE Sports. "In the 1890s it was practically unheard of."

Londonderry said she did it for $10,000, but Zheutlin couldn't prove any bet actually happened. "It seemed to me at the end to be so improbable that she was plucked from obscurity by two people I couldn't ever really track down," he said. "I was realizing as my research went on that she was such a grandiose teller of tales. She was really exaggerating a lot of her adventures because she was trying to make a name for herself, and the more she elaborated and had these incredible stories of danger and daring-do, [the more I realized] there may have been other parts of this story that she concocted as well."

So if not for a huge payday, why? Zheutlin's answer is simple: fame. "There were three major currents, important social currents of that period in the 1890s, and in this one trip she managed to exploit all three of them," he said.

The first, according to Zheutlin, was the exploding popularity of the bicycle, which gave people a freedom of movement that they never had before. A bicycle was less expensive to buy and maintain than a horse, and it wouldn't buck you if spooked. Furthermore, by the late 1800s design improvements made cycling safer and easier than ever. Thanks to the bike, people in Europe and the United States at the turn of the century were out and about, exploring the countryside and nearby towns. In a time before automobiles, bicycles changed the world.

The second social current was an interest in global events. International travel was still expensive, but thanks to inventions like the telegraph and the steamship, news of the world spread more quickly than ever. People were fascinated by the bigness of the planet, caught up in the early stages of globalization.

The third current, of course, was feminism, and the beginning of the fight for women's suffrage. Today, Londonderry is remembered as a feminist hero, but Zheutlin describes her as a "feminist of convenience," a term he admits is perhaps a little too harsh. Still, Londonderry seemed more interested in using the movement to draw attention to her trip than she was in carrying the banner of women's suffrage, or agitating for freedom from the drudgery of housework.

"She wasn't a feminist in the sense of Gloria Steinem out campaigning for women's rights, marching or lobbying Congress or any of those things," Zheutlin said. "But I have to say more in her own personal way, feeling that she would not be bound by the traditional constraints that impacted women's rights in that era."

As Londonderry traveled the world—from Boston to Chicago, then across France, part of the Middle East, Southeast Asia, China, and Japan—she boasted about her exploits to whoever would listen. Sometimes she contradicted herself in different interviews. At one point, she wrote an article about how her trip totaled some 9,000 miles and change, but the rules of her "bet" had stipulated she ride at least 10,000 miles. She couldn't keep her story straight.

The New Woman: Annie "Londonderry" Kopchovsky (a documentary trailer) from Gillian Willman on Vimeo.

The more Zheutlin learned about Londonderry's character, the less sympathetic—but more fascinating—she became. As parents, she and her husband were largely absent. They shipped their kids off to a boarding school—a Catholic school, no less—which she later told her granddaughter was due to the superior education they received there. Her eldest daughter eventually became a nun.

"If you think about it, that's a real rejection of your parents, especially devout Jewish parents for whom a conversion—particularly for Orthodox Jews—a conversion is like a death," Zheutlin said. "They would have sat shiva for her."

What Zheutlin was left with, in the end, was a kind of 1890s Kardashian: a woman willing to do whatever it took to get noticed, and who happened to find tremendous success along the way.

We don't like to remember pioneers and barrier-breakers as complicated and flawed characters, but Londonderry's full story lays bare the kind of ego and self-centeredness that can drive people to do things that have never been done before. The motives of the people involved in great events, and those whose accomplishments provoke new ideas about society and what people are capable of, don't always align with how they're remembered. As the old saying goes, Well-behaved women seldom make history.

Regardless of why Londonderry decided to circle the globe on her bike, she did it. She made a name for herself, too, and she did it on her own terms—accomplishments that are admirable, even if, as Zheutlin said, the pain she caused her children "reverberated through the generations." She will rightly live on in the history books as an example of fearlessness and perseverance and, thanks to Zheutlin, as a reminder that the people who push the limits of human capability—explorers, basically—often pay a price that's subsequently forgotten.

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