15 Inspirational Female Explorers You Should Know: 11-15
By Chelsea La Near
In our final installment of inspirational female explorers to celebrate Women's History Month, we look at many female firsts! Learn the histories of an aviator and an astronaut, a gorilla expert, a queer icon, and a legendary cyclist.
11. Annie Londonderry (1870-1947): The first woman to bicycle around the world
In the 1890's, a bicycle craze swept over America and uniquely brought women along for the ride. The bicycle provided a smaller, safer, and more manageable mode of individual transportation than horses, which had historically been reserved for men. Suddenly, women had increased mobility, and they relished in their newfound freedom. Women's clothing even changed to accommodate cycling conditions: skirts got shorter and often gave way to bloomers, arms and necks were uncovered, and corsets were out of the question. Susan B. Anthony claimed in 1896 that the bike “had done much more for women emancipation than anything else.”
This was also the dawn of yellow journalism, sensationalism, and a budding interest in international travel. Jules Verne's wildly popular 1872 novel, Around the World in 80 Days, had inspired others to traverse the globe, including the female journalist Nellie Bly. Bly achieved international attention for circling the globe in just 72 days - a new record. The stories of women defying the confines of their gender to accomplish extraordinary feats had become popular journalism, and a young Latvian immigrant in Massachusetts took note.
In 1892, Annie Kopchovsky accepted an alleged wager that bet no woman could travel around the world by bicycle in 15 months. She was an unlikely candidate for the challenge for several reasons. To begin, her name easily identified her as a Jew at a time when antisemitism ran rampant. Additionally, the 23-year old mother of three weighed just around 100 pounds and had never actually ridden a bicycle. Despite these potential disqualifiers, the daredevil set out in out in search of a sponsor. The Pope Manufacturing Company, who made Columbia bicycles, agreed to give her a 42-pound women's bicycle with an advertisement attached for Londonderry Lithia Spring Water. They also offered her an additional $100 if she traveled under the name of Annie Londonderry. More than likely, the bicycle manufacturer, or perhaps even Annie herself, had devised the wager to add sensationalism to the journey.
In June of 1894, Annie, wearing a skirt and corset, took off from Boston with just one change of clothes and a pearl-handled pistol in tow. On a good day, she averaged 8-10 miles, so it took her until September to reach Chicago. Exhausted and emaciated, Annie was ready to quit, realizing she would never make it across the Rockies before heavy snowfall. However, a Chicago bike company caught wind of the cyclist and offered to take over her sponsorship, gifting her a new, simplified men's bike that was 20 pounds lighter than her Columbia. Encouraged by her shiny new machine, Annie switched to more libertine dress and determined to complete her journey. This time, she circled back East to New York and hopped on a ship headed for France. At this point, it's unclear how much cycling Annie actually did in her journey around the world, but she did make it to many international cities along the way including Jerusalem, Alexandria, Colombo, Bombay, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Nagasaki and Kobe. In September of 1895, Annie Londonderry, now a celebrity, finally arrived back in Chicago in time to collect her wager prize.
While Annie, a savvy saleswoman and skilled storyteller, certainly exaggerated her adventures to attract media attention, her trip still serves as a symbol of women's independence. She is also considered a pioneer of athletic sports marketing.
12. Bessie Coleman (1892-1926): The first African-American aviatrix
Bessie Coleman bravely crossed gender and racial barriers to become the first African American woman, and the first Native American woman, to receive a pilot's license. She is also the first black person ever to earn an International Pilot's License.
Coleman was among 13 children born to a family of sharecroppers in Texas. She walked four miles each day to a segregated, one-room school where she excelled in academics. At 18, she enrolled at Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University, but had to return home after just one semester when she ran out of money. In her mid-twenties, she moved to Chicago where she first encountered stories from former World War I pilots, most of whom were white men as very few black men were allowed to control a plane. At the time, flight schools in America accepted neither women nor blacks, so Coleman's interest in aviation seemed like a pipe dream. However, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, Robert S. Abbot, was inspired by the young woman's daring determination and encouraged her to learn abroad. He published her story in his paper, which caught the attention of prominent black banker, Jesse Binga, who agreed to sponsor her quest. Coleman made her way to France where she studied with a French ace pilot near Paris before returning home as a media sensation in 1921.
Since there were no wars to fight and commercial flying was still decades away, Coleman realized that in order to maintain her celebrity status and earn money, she would have to become an exhibitionist flyer. She was billed as "the world's greatest woman flier" in her first air show in 1922. It was an event honoring the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I and featured aerial performances by other American ace pilots as well as a jump by a black parachutist. For the next five years, "Queen Bess," as she came to be known, drew large crowds and was universally admired for her daredevil maneuvers.
In addition to Coleman's incredible accomplishments in the face of adversity, she was also fiercely committed to fighting racism at every opportunity. She refused to participate in events that prohibited African American attendance and even refused a a film role that would require her to appear as an impoverished hobo. She didn't want to reinforce negative stereotypes. She lectured around the country to encourage black participation in aviation and began saving money to establish her own flying school. Sadly, Coleman would not live long enough to realize this dream.