Blogs > Steve Hochstadt > Women in the Boston Marathon

Apr 26, 2016

Women in the Boston Marathon

tags: feminism,sports,women,Boston Marathon,running

My daughter-in-law ran the 120th Boston Marathon last week. She was one of 13,000 women in the world’s oldest yearly road race.


The very first marathon race, part of the revival of the Olympics in 1896, was won appropriately by unheralded Greek water carrier Spyridon Louis in under 3 hours. Eight of 17 runners finished, seven Greeks and one Hungarian.


The Boston Marathon was initiated the next year, April 19, 1897, to celebrate Patriots’ Day, which had been invented in Massachusetts in 1894 to commemorate the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, as well as the first bloodshed of the Civil War in the Baltimore riot of 1861. The Marathon was added to the patriotic holiday to link the American struggle for independence with Athenian ideals of democracy. The newly formed Boston Athletic Association was well organized: alongside each of the 15 runners rode a militiaman on a bicycle with water, lemons, and wet handkerchiefs.


Over the next 70 years, the race was transformed into an international event for men. The field ballooned from its usual 200 before 1960 to nearly 500 in 1965.


But women were banned in Boston. Into the 1960s, athletic authorities claimed women were incapable of running that distance. The longest AAU-sanctioned race for women was 1.5 miles. Women could not compete further than 800 meters in the Olympics.


By that time, Roberta Gibb was in her 20s. Accepted ideas about what women could and couldn’t do were no longer universally believed. Gibb watched the 1964 Boston Marathon and thought she could try it. She trained on her own for two years, including a trip across the US which combined driving and running. By the time she reached the Pacific Ocean, she could run 40 miles. But she couldn’t run Boston in 1966. The race director wrote: “Women aren't allowed, and furthermore are not physiologically able.”


Gibb took a bus from San Diego to Boston, arrived the night before the race, hid behind a forsythia bush near the start, and blended into the crowd of male runners as they passed by. She had worn a hooded sweatshirt to hide her illegal gender, but soon got too hot. She was worried that taking it off would get her in trouble, but the men around her said not to worry. “We won’t let anyone bother you.” The news that a woman was running spread quickly. As the runners passed through Wellesley, thousands of extra spectators cheered her. Fifty years later, Gibb remembered, “The women of Wellesley College knew I was coming and let out an enormous scream. They were jumping in the air, laughing and crying.” Her feet bled in her new boy’s size 6 running shoes. There were no shoes made for women. She finished in 3:21 in the top third of the pack, faster than average finish times for men today.


The press were excited by her story, but unable to understand her motivations. She was asked whether she had some axe to grind against men. Photographers followed her to her parents’ home, where they wanted to take pictures of her cooking. The BAA released an official statement: “There is no such thing as a marathon for women.”


All around her, Gibb had found acceptance and encouragement from runners and spectators. The authorities, the experts, the people in charge said women couldn’t do that. They meant that women, their idea of women, shouldn’t do that. After she did it, they said she was an anomaly, a freak. We won’t let you do that. Roberta Gibb was a freak in a sense – she was willing to reject their thinking and violate their rules.


That wasn’t enough, though. The next year, Gibb ran again unofficially. Jock Semple, the race director, ran into the street to tear the bib number off Kathrine Switzer, who had entered incognito as K.V. Switzer. Switzer’s running partner, a hammer thrower, body-blocked Semple, and other racers protected her.


In the years after Gibb’s first Boston marathon, the idea that women could do it, too, whatever it was, bubbled through American society. It took a movement to crash through the walls authorities had built around women.


Gibb ran again in 1968, beating four other women. In 1972, women were finally allowed to enter – 8 women started and they all finished. Title IX, opening all forms of school sports to women, was passed in 1972. That year women were allowed to run 1500 meters in the Munich Olympics. The first Olympic women’s marathon was held in Los Angeles in 1984.


The 2016 program of the Boston Marathon celebrates 50 years of women in Boston. Gibb was the Grand Marshall of Boston this year. My daughter-in-law did not have to hide or feel alone when she ran. She didn’t have to be an activist or a freak. She just had to be a runner.


Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 26, 2016

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