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A Victorian feminist influencer

It’s 2020, and while technology continues to advance rapidly, human nature remains the same. What drives modern-day technology (such as mobile phones or social media) is no different from when goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg tightened the screws of the world’s first printing press in 1440. Humans are curious, emotional, social, and above all, pleasure seekers. Technology just magnifies our nature, including our focus on food, sex, appearance, and let’s not forget, the cry for self-importance.

In that sense, social media Influencers are old-school, as our urge for loud self-promotion is as old as the hills. How influencers spread the message has changed, but their desire to be seen isn't that different from 1894, when go-getting American immigrant Annie Cohen Kopchovsky set off on a pioneering adventure, growing a global audience.

Kopchovsky, better known as Annie Londonderry, made her name as the first woman to cycle around the globe. In June 1894, Londonderry set off from Boston, claiming to settle a wager between two rich local businessmen. It was dubious the wager existed, but the story was enough to launch Annie, a 23-year old Jewish Latvian immigrant, on the road for 15 months.

In 1894, racing around the world—whether by foot, bike, or boat—was a trend, as were so-called wagers encouraging them. For example, in 1884, Thomas Stevens, who was English, pedaled around the world in a Penny Farthing and in 1889, American reporter Nellie Bly sailed around the world in 72 days straight. Annie might have read about their exploits and aware of social trends, took the risk to launch her own venture, which paid off.

Today’s equivalent might be a Youtuber or Instagram influencer offering a 21-day challenge: to better abs, creating a meditation practice, overcoming bad mental habits, eating a raw food diet, gaining happiness, avoiding sugar, doing a brain detox and….a million etcs. You get me. Just as modern influencers tout their niche, doing yoga asanas in the rice paddies of Bali while discussing all things organic, Annie found hers, on the road.

Right from the start, Annie earned money as a rolling billboard. She attached posters and banners to her bicycle, sewed product names on her clothing (evidently, a spot on her left breast went for $100), and even the name Londonderry was an advertising ploy linked to one of her sponsors, the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company. She wasn’t shy to monetize her every move, selling autographs as souvenirs and lecturing about her travels through America, France (which fell in love with her), Sri Lanka, Japan and Singapore.

Like so many of today’s influencers, Annie was a master self-promoter. She was frequently interviewed by the press, which painted her as charming, with a gift of the gab, and an overactive, if slippery imagination. Annie was full of tall tales, lying to the press (or at least failing to correct them) about her name, leaving her husband and three children behind (she never mentioned them), and claiming she was a wealthy heiress, law student, orphan, and medical student, in turn. She excelled at attracting attention and even though she was loose with the truth, she did cycle thousands of miles through rough terrain alone, relying on instinct, in an era when women were meant to stay at home.

When she started cycling, Annie wasn’t much of a cyclist or a feminist (the term didn't even exist), but the further she rode, the more outspoken she became. Annie increasingly broke with the status quo, cycling unapologetically in men’s clothing and charting her own course, eventually influencing the burgeoning suffragette movement. As the cycling craze hit America full force in the 1890s, women grew to love it for cycling allowed them independence and it literally let them travel further than they had ever gone before.

Quoted by reporter Nellie Bly in an 1896 interview, suffragette Susan B. Anthony claimed that the bicycle had done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.

So hats off to Annie Londonderry, a Victorian social influencer, whose cause is still being celebrated 120 years later. Rather than focusing on looks, having a toned body, and fine-tuning her imperfections (alas, our modern obsessions), she used her social influence and rode bravely into life, paving the road for others.

(Btw, I wrote Annie because I've done tons of research about lady cyclists for my screenplay. The history is fascinating, so if you'd like to know more, please get in touch!)

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