Women Running: A Feminist History

We go back at least 2500 years, to the Heraean Games of ancient Greece–the women-only version of the Olympics held every four years and led by a committee of 16 female leaders. Or we can turn to Sparta, the most egalitarian of Greece’s city-states where young women regularly competed in footraces, and men chose wives for their strength and prowess, as well as their social status. And that’s only what I know about the Western traditions of women running.

What about ancient China, Africa, the great civilizations of South and Central America? Surely, some of those foot messengers along the vast network of ancient Incan highways were women.

And here’s why: Evolutionary biologists are finding that females were the endurance champions. In fact, studies are finding that once both sexes hit over 30 miles in a race, you’d do well to be female. In ultramarathons especially, women physically outperform men.

Fact is, we women have been marathoners from the very beginning. After all, what is more a marathon than motherhood?

And that’s where we pick up again. After the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, medical experts claimed for nearly two centuries that–now that we women were off the farm where physical labor outdoors was necessarily shared–women were supposedly too weak for physical activity. Athletic activity would even ruin our ability to reproduce. (The only women’s right all men seem genuinely concerned with, even today.) So fathers and husbands kept their women indoors where we stuffed ourselves into corsets and passed out from being unable to breathe. Kind of a self-defeating cycle. But God our boobs looked good.

At any rate, no more running for us.

Sure, you got the head cases who shocked all the other women shut into their parlors. Annie Londonderry set off to pedal around the world in her bloomers in 1894–and made her 15-month deadline easy, entering a few races along the way just for kicks. Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel in 1926, easily beating all five men before her by a full two hours. Grace Hudowalski successfully scaled all 46 peaks in the Adirondacks by 1937.

We hadn’t known it was possible. We had forgotten our proud heritage.

Once we did, there was no stopping us. The dam finally busted in 1967 when Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to complete a marathon as a numbered runner. Women had been participating in marathons–they simply didn’t register, often to sidestep the sexist hostility towards athletic women.

But Switzer had no idea what a landmark her first marathon would turn out to be. The race manager assaulted her after she started running. The press hounded her during the race, demanding to know when she would drop out and what she was trying to prove. Her determination redoubled, and she became a feminist that day.

Switzer finished the race in four hours, 20 minutes, and was all over the news the next day. Now, a day doesn’t pass when I don’t hear about someone’s mother or sister or aunt or daughter entering a race or training for one. I can’t go out on my street without catching sight of a fierce Amazon sprinting past me in her hot-pink laces and cheetah-print sports bra. Yup, women athletes are here to stay, and even the corporations know it’s in their best interest to serve up the sports outfits we want.

After two years off running due to an arthritic spine, most weeks I’m back out there once or twice. And when I see another woman jogging down the sidewalk toward me, I give a little smile and nod. We are both part of the same proud tradition, both indebted to Ederle and Switzer and all those who came before us. We are champions of a common cause–women’s health and achievement, our own and yours, too.

Happy running.

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