How Bicycling Empowered Feminism
Author Peter Zheutlin Discusses ‘Spin: A Novel Based on a (Mostly) True Story’
By Matt Kettmann
When Massachusetts-based author Peter Zheutlin discovered that a long-lost aunt played an integral role in elevating the popularity of bicycling around the end of the 19th century, he decided to tell her story. In so doing, Zheutlin is educating the world about his great-great aunt Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a k a Annie Londonderry, who embarked on a round-the-world bicycling trip with a well-publicized stop in Santa Barbara on May 15, 1895. He published a nonfiction account, Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride in 2007 and this year fictionalized the saga in Spin: A Novel Based on a (Mostly) True Story.
Aside from Londonderry’s amazing life story, Zheutlin’s books highlight how critical bicycling became to liberating women from traditional housebound existence, empowering suffrage, feminism, and personal freedom along the way. He tells us more about the book below.
Not many people know about this story, but it’s part of your family history. Did you grow up hearing a lot about it, or did you have to uncover it yourself?
Until 1993, this story was completely forgotten to history. That year, my mother, Baila, received a letter from a complete stranger who was researching Annie’s story based on a few old newspaper stories he had come across. His research led him to believe that my mother was a descendant of Annie’s.
Based on the information in the letter, it was clear that she was — Annie was the sister of my mother’s grandfather. But she had never heard of Annie or anything about a family member taking this extraordinary journey. So, like my mother, this was the first I had ever heard about it too.
Unable to be of help, I put the letter and the copies of those old newspaper accounts, which were enclosed, in a file folder. Over the ensuing years, I’d ask older relatives if they’d ever heard of Annie and came up empty every time. In 2003, the same fellow wrote to us again to see if we had learned anything over the years, but we hadn’t. But this time, I decided to do some digging.
The bare outlines of the story were so outlandish and improbable. Why were Annie and her journey such a secret? I don’t know, but I suspect Annie either cast herself out or was cast out by parts of the family who saw nothing redeeming about a woman who left her husband and three children, all under the age of 6, to go gallivanting around the world on a bicycle. Other than Annie herself, once the trip was over, there was no one interested, I suspect, in making a legend of it.
But I got hooked on the story and spent years searching for and finding hundreds of newspaper accounts of her travels from all over the world because she was a gifted self-promoter and great copy. As I did that work, I also engaged a specialist in Jewish genealogy to help me determine if Annie had had any direct living descendants — I am a collateral descendant — who might be able to shed light on this mystery woman. And we did eventually find Annie’s only grandchild, my second cousin once removed, Mary.
I wrote to her, unsure if she’d even respond, but she was thrilled. She not only knew Annie, who died when Mary was 16, but her basement turned out to be a repository of many artifacts of Annie’s bike trip.
My first book about Annie, a nonfiction account of her journey, was published in 2007, and it did a lot to make more people aware of her story. That book was translated into several languages, and, in the years since Around the World on Two Wheels was published, a short documentary film has been made about her (The New Woman) and a musical called Spin, inspired by Annie, has toured all across Canada. Another musical, Ride, was produced in London in early 2020, and a comedy, The Wheel Woman, had its debut at the Orlando Shakes Theater Festival in October 2020.
A street in Bend, Oregon, has been named for her. The book itself has been translated and published in German, Italian, Korean, and Czech. Great Big Story, a subsidiary of CNN, produced a short animated feature. Articles have appeared in dozens of publications around the world, book chapters have been written, countless blog posts have appeared, and a children’s book is coming in 2021. Annie was also the subject of an episode of the Travel Channel’s Mysteries at the Museum.
In November 2019, as part of its “Overlooked No More” series of belated obituaries of women and people of color overlooked in their time, the New York Times ran a full-length obituary of Annie; it took up half a page in the paper, complete with photograph. The same obituary appeared the next day in the Boston Globe. The West End Museum, dedicated to keeping alive the memory of Boston’s old West End neighborhood, the neighborhood Annie fled in 1894 and which was razed during the “urban renewal” wave of the 1950s, mounted an exhibit about her in 2020.
I had an 1890-era Sterling bicycle restored and painted the color of Annie’s (cream white), a bicycle now on loan as part of an exhibition on women and cycling that started at the Bloomfield Museum of Science in Israel and which has traveled to Germany, Poland, and, in 2021, will make its last stop in Ottawa, Canada. As she would have hoped, Annie’s story has been rescued from the dustbin of history and it’s been gratifying to watch, to say the least.
Why were bicycles critical to women’s freedom?
I could write a book on this subject! In a nutshell, the bicycle truly revolutionized the lives of women around the turn of the 20th century. It gave them a mobility they never had before, there was a feeling of physical liberation and freedom that came with gliding about on a bicycle, and practicality demanded clothing more suitable to riding than long skirts and corsets, and so women started wearing bloomers to ride. Annie herself underwent a complete transformation in her dress as she made her way around the world, starting in long skirts and a tightly tailored waistcoat, but by the end, she was wearing a man’s riding outfit, including pants. She really challenged Victorian notions of female propriety. The bicycle became a tool of empowerment and a symbol of the women’s suffrage movement. As Susan B. Anthony once said, “Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
Tell us more about her visit to Santa Barbara. Why was this on her route? How did people react?
Annie arrived in San Francisco from Japan aboard a steamer in March 1985. Accompanied by a prominent cyclist from S.F. named Mark Johnson, she spent a leisurely six weeks riding from San Francisco to Los Angeles, arriving in Santa Barbara on the night of May 13, 1895. A major bicycle racing event was scheduled in the city for May 15, which the Santa Barbara Daily Independent predicted would be “the biggest day in wheelmen’s circles that Santa Barbara ever saw.”
Annie was on hand; one reporter noted how tanned she was. She was quite famous by this time and an attraction in her own right, so the race organizers invited her to ride several times past the grandstand. She disappointed some, however, by declining to participate in a timed sprint, as she had and would occasionally do in other cities.
But the Independent was generous about her refusal to race, saying “nothing less than the Earth” would suit Annie for a course. “She came on the grandstand after giving her exhibition,” reported the Independent, “and gave a short lecture, in which she told of leaving Boston without a cent and bloomers made of paper … she described her route around the world, told of being present at one of the big oriental battles [a reference to the Sino-Japanese War — Ed.] …”
Some of this was made up, as Annie was all about spinning a good yarn and enthralling audiences. It’s fair to say that my new book about her, Spin, which is a work of historical fiction, is about a woman who wrote her own historical fiction in real time.
What do you hope readers learn from your book?
Annie’s story tells us so much about the 1890s, about the way the bicycle dramatically changed the lives of women, about the constricted lives women were expected to live, about the journalism of the period, about the ways changes in communications and transportation technology was making the world a “smaller” place.
Though she was a flawed person whose decisions, especially her decision to disappear from the lives of her young children, were sometimes harsh and self-indulgent, she was nevertheless a woman of boundless moxie who colored way outside the lines. And as the cliché goes, well-behaved women rarely make history.
She was an anonymous Jewish housewife and mother living in a Boston tenement and very unhappy with her lot in life. By dint of sheer chutzpah and a boundless imagination, within 15 months, she had turned herself into a global celebrity albeit under an assumed name, Annie Londonderry, a name that was borrowed from the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Co. of New Hampshire, the first of many advertisers who purchased space on her bike and her body. She took a new name and invented an entirely new persona, a quintessentially American thing to do.