Jewesses On Wheels
A woman riding a bicycle in full Victorian dress doesn't freely associate with being Jewish ... except in the case of Annie Cohen Kopchovsky (who adopted the decidedly less ethnic name of "Annie Londonderry"). In courageous, chutzpah-like ways, Annie -- a Jewish immigrant living in Boston in June 1894 -- shattered the social conventions of her time.
With one change of underwear, a revolver, and a dream of fame and wealth, she rode off to circle the globe on a 42-pound bicycle. From cycling to Chicago, to El Paso, and to France, Annie's story is recounted in Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry's Extraordinary Ride, a new book by Peter Zheutlin who I had the pleasure of hearing speak yesterday at the Jewish Women's Archive in celebration of Women's History Month.
I hadn't known much about Annie Londonderry's adventure, about leaving behind her husband (a peddler) and three young children at a time when stepping outside the traditional role of wife and mother was sharply eschewed. Until 1894, there were no female sport stars, no product endorsement deals, and no young mothers reinventing themselves on wheels. Nor had I known how much the bicycle, in the 1890s, symbolized a significant transformation of women's identities. Bicycles challenged every Victorian convention about female propriety: wearing bloomers instead of large billowing skirts; the social acceptability of sweating, not to mention having something between your legs. Bicycles sparked wide-spread controversy about women's bodies: would bike riding be too sexually stimulating for women? Would straddling a saddle combined with the motion required to propel a bicycle lead to arousal? Zheutlin explained that such concerns resulted in so-called "hygienic" saddles, saddles with little or no padding where a woman's genitalia would ordinarily make contact with the seat. High stems and upright handlebars, as opposed to the more aggressively positioned "drop" handlebars, were also thought to reduce the risk of female sexual stimulation by reducing the angle at which a woman would be forced to ride. Some critics warned the bicycle was harmful to a woman's health, and that when afforded mobility and independence, a woman could easily go off with another man and betray her husband. The fragility and sensitivity of the female organism was a common theme coupled with the loss of feminine identity entirely. Annie's harshest French critics insisted that she was really a man, or perhaps neither male nor female but "a third sex."
Annie was, in many ways, emblematic of the "New Woman" who saw herself as the equal of men. The bicycle helped assert that. And in the face of widespread criticism, I think Susan B. Anthony got it right: "Cycling has done more to emancipate women than any other thing in history." As Zheutlin writes in his book:
"As women learned to ride bicycles they not only gained physical mobility that broadened their horizons beyond the neighborhoods in which they lived, they discovered a new-found sense of freedom of movement, a freedom previously circumscribed by the cumbersome fashions of the Victorian era as well as by Victorian sensibilities."
It strikes me as both impressive and amusing that the bicycle would be the "thing" of the 19th century. Have there been other objects or activities met with such hype and scrutiny in offering the potential to liberate women? Is there something today that could transform female identity as profoundly as the bicycle? What do you think?