(WOMENSENEWS)–They are the ladies in lycra, the babes in bloomers, the pedalers in pink.
They are the bicycle-bound “Spokeswomen” and they have a story to tell.
For the last week, Gillian Klempner, 25, and Meghan Shea, 24, have been biking down the East Coast from Boston to New York in a publicity stunt designed to spotlight forgotten feminist history while raising funds for their documentary film, “The New Woman: The Life and Times of Annie ‘Londonderry’ Kopchovsky,” about the first woman to bicycle around the world.
The pair, creators of Spokeswoman Productions, their nascent documentary film company in Washington, D.C., discovered Kopchovsky in an article her great-grandnephew, Peter Zheutlin, wrote for Bicycling Magazine in 2005.
Immediately, they were smitten by the tale of a young Jewish immigrant who left her husband and three children behind to make history and headlines with her round-the-world tour, spanning 15 months and scores of countries, from North America to Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
As Kopchovsky told it a century ago, it all started in 1894 with a high-stakes wager between two Boston businessmen who bet no woman could circle the globe by bicycle in 15 months and earn $5,000 along the way.
Kopchovsky, they say, was an unlikely candidate for the job. She was only 23 at the time, and weighed a mere 100 pounds. Her children were young, all under the age of 6, and she had never ridden a bicycle before in her life.
But Kopchovsky was determined, courageous and cunning.
Armed with a sponsorship from the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company in Nashua, N.H., she climbed on her bike, according to the Boston Evening Transcript, a newspaper from that period, and “set sail like a kite down Beacon Street” in search of adventure, freedom and fame.
Her journey took her across the country and around the world.
By the time she reached Chicago, she had ditched her cumbersome Columbia–a 42-pound woman’s bicycle–and shed her flowing skirts, trading them in for a man’s bicycle and a pair of bloomers.
Wherever she went, crowds of critics and fans gathered to greet her.
Kopchovsky was more than an attraction. Riding high on top of her bicycle, her bloomers blowing in the wind, she was emblematic of what many women were striving to be in those twilight years of the Victorian era.
It was a time when women were pouring into secondary schools, universities and the labor force as never before.
Meanwhile, bicycles, with their promise of mobility and pleasure, became synonymous with women’s lib, prompting Susan B. Anthony to say, “Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride on a wheel. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”
It was easy to see Kopchovsky as the quintessential “New Woman,” the independent, politically inspired suffragist that emerged in the 1890s as a modern answer to the Victorian model of femininity.
It was a title she embraced, she said, “if it meant she could do anything a man could do.”
But, unlike her predecessor Nellie Bly, who traveled around the world for Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, The New York World, four years before, Annie’s story has been largely buried, lost somewhere along the dusty corridors of women’s history.
Last Saturday, Klempner, Shea, Zheutlin and a team of supporters began “Back in Bloomers,” a weeklong bicycle ride retracing the first leg of Kopchovsky’s journey. Their trip started at the Massachusetts State House in Boston and concluded Saturday in New York City’s Washington Square Park.
So far, the bloomer-sporting brigade has raised more than $7,600 to offset production costs for their film.
More importantly, say Klempner and Shea, together with author Zheutlin, who has an upcoming book about the subject, they have rescued Kopchovsky’s legacy from obscurity.
Greetings Along the Ride
“Wherever we go, whether it’s an urban area, immigrant neighborhood or quiet country road, we are greeted with waves, thumbs-up, cheers and phrases like, ‘Dude, I like your ride,'” Klempner wrote from Providence, R.I., during the second day of the “Back in Bloomers” tour.
She added in an e-mail to Women’s eNews: “Even today, with all of the technology available to us, bikes still offer a unique sense of freedom. While we’re not riding to escape our lives, as Annie was, as we pedal to New York City, it feels as though we’re pedaling towards our dreams.”
Kopchovsky once told a granddaughter that she wanted to escape a life of pure baby-making and housewifery during her round-the-world tour, Klempner said.
There is something “infectious” about Kopchovsky’s story, added Shea. “What inspires me most about her is that, as a young woman with relatively little training, she accomplished this wild feat on her ingenuity and charm. Annie inspires us to go beyond.”
Klempner said her story has not only spurred the pair’s documentary, but it has served as a launching pad for their friends as well.
Beth Fuller, 26, wanted an entree into Web design, so she created their Web site. Sherry San Miguel, 27, an aspiring fashion designer, custom-crafted their bloomers.
“We feel like, if she could do it a time when women weren’t even supposed to have aspirations, nothing should be stopping us now,” said Klempner. “We find ourselves being adventurous, outgoing and a little bit zany, just like she was. It has galvanized the support of the ‘New Woman’ network of the 21st century.”
Jessica Gould is a journalist living in Washington, D.C.
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