Earlier today, more than 22,000 runners lined up in Hopkinton, Mass., to run the Boston Marathon, and nearly half of those runners were women. So many women run Boston – as well as the hundreds of other marathons that take place each year – that it can be difficult to fathom that there was ever a time when women were essentially forbidden from racing distances longer than a half-mile.
Yet that was exactly the case, and it wasn’t that long ago that this was how things were. And while there’s a certain cultural mythology that likes to think of social progress as an impersonal force of existence, like time or gravity, something that is almost entirely divorced from the actions of human beings, something that can be counted on to happen whether we want it to or not, the truth is that every push towards a fairer, more just world has come about because of the concerted efforts of people who took deliberate steps to make this so.
The history of women’s distance running is full of acts like this, acts of defiance and civil disobedience. A handful of women were not content to sit and wait for the running establishment to evolve on its own. They pushed and they fought. They were not patient. They did not sit and wait. And without those risks, I would most likely be unable to participate in one of the things that brings me great joy in this life.
(Remember this the next time you hear someone talk about the great mens-only tradition of the Augusta Country Club. The Boston Athletic Association once had a great mens-only tradition as well, and how silly and outdated it all seems in retrospect, doesn’t it?)
The BAA brought back most of the eight women who officially ran the marathon for the first time in 1972 and honored them. Perhaps the best known is Kathrine Switzer, who signed up under the name K.V. Switzer in 1967, only to find herself having to dodge a full-body tackle by the race director when he realized a woman was running his race.
Another of the women honored today was Bobbi Gibb, who ran unofficially in 1966, making her the first woman to finish the marathon. She trained hard for the races, sometimes running as many as 40 miles a day, even though she had been told that women were not physiologically capable of running such distances. As she was not allowed to compete with the men, she stood in the bushes until half the pack has passed by, then she jumped out and ran with the men.
These acts of dignified rebellion were catnip for the news media, which, much like today, can’t get enough of man-bites-underdog stories, especially when they flip conventional wisdom on its head. What describes that more than the sight of a handful of young women defying one of the most venerated sports institutions in the country?
Certainly it took so much more than that to change things. It took lobbying and organizing and maneuvering and politicking and establishing alliances, not just with women who wanted to run but men who supported gender equity in the sport as well. It wasn’t as if K.V. Switzer crossed the finish line and the BAA said, “Aw, shucks, you showed us,” then rolled out the red carpet and bowls of Dinty Moore beef stew for the ladies.
I’m less than two weeks away from running my second marathon, which is a humbling experience in and of itself, but that humility is magnified when I think of the obstacles faced by the women who ran before me. There is no denying that a marathon is difficult – that’s part of what makes it so alluring to so many – but to do so while pushing back against an entire social order that says you can’t? That’s a challenge I’m not sure many of us would have been able to rise up to meet, and I’m so grateful to the women who ensured that we don’t have to.