Kathrine Switzer – Marathon Woman
“I felt like I had successfully passed a torch to the millions of women around the world who have had their lives transformed by running,”
Although Kathrine Switzer is running royalty, her name may not be familiar to those outside the sport. However, the contribution of her and her actions in the fight for gender equality in both athletics and wider society cannot be understated. Here is her story.
Over 50 years ago, Kathrine Switzer broke down a significant barrier in gender equality in sport by officially entering the Boston Marathon. There had not been a female runner to officially participate in the 70 year history of the World’s biggest Marathon. At the time, there were wide misconceptions and sexist notions regarding women in sport: they were unattractive; they are too fragile to
compete; they cannot do what men do. However, Switzer was committed, and trained, registered and competed in the 1967 Marathon, wearing the #261 bib and a coat of lipstick at the starting line as the sole women amongst hundreds of men.
She did not get far before facing some adversity. Switzer recalls the infamous scene of the event’s manager, Jock Semple, chasing her furiously down the road in an attempt to remove her from the race:
“A big man, a huge man, with bared teeth was set to pounce, and before I could react he grabbed my shoulder and flung me back, screaming, ‘Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!’”
Despite being shaken by the ordeal, Switzer was determined to finish the race, considering what was at stake not just for her, but for all women everywhere:
“I knew if I quit, nobody would ever believe that women had the capability to 26-plus miles…If I quit, it would set women’s sports back, way back, instead of forward. If I quit, I’d never run Boston. If I quit, Jock Semple and all those like him would win”
Switzer eventually completed the race in 4 hours and 20 minutes. However, her decision to participate was not without retribution. Switzer was disqualified and expelled from the athletics federation on grounds of running with men, fraudulently entering the race and running without a chaperone. Her actions and the subsequent consequences she faced sparked a desire for gender
equality in the world of running. So much so, the organisers of the Boston Marathon eventually succumbed to public pressure and allowed women to compete in the event just five years later. Her unrelenting attitude to stand up to the status quo and overcome limitations she knew to be false holds important lessons for all looking to make change in sport and in wider society:
Unwritten Rules Are Made To Be Broken
“He (Brigg) checked the rule book and I checked the rule book. Even though it had been a men-only race for 70 years, it said nothing about gender…it wasn’t a deception.”
Switzer and her coach, Arnie Brigg, reviewed the rules of the Boston Marathon prior to entering the race. On paper, there were no formal rules prohibiting women to take part in the race, nor were there questions on the race application enquiring about gender. She signed her application form as ‘K.V.Switzer’ – as she had always done – that prevented event organisers from seeing she was a girl
when her application came in. She never did anything illegal or forbidden, yet managed to spur international interest stemming from her defiance of misconceptions of women in sport.
Repercussions Can Lead to Opportunities
“I wanted to create opportunities for women in the sport because everybody was saying, ‘Oh, well, women’s running doesn’t count. Nobody else is going to run.’ I knew other women would run if they weren’t afraid of it. I wanted them to feel what I felt.”
Switzer’s expulsion from the athletics federation prevented her from participating in many races across the country. However, she continued to compete where she could, rerunning the Boston Marathon in 1970 and winning the New York City Marathon in 1974. In 1978, she went on to create the Avon International Running Circuit of women’s-only races in 27 countries. Since then, well over a
million females have participated in the races. The momentum gathered from these races helped convince the International Olympic Committee to include a women’s marathon for the first time in their 1984 Olympic games. Her actions inspired a generation. Today, almost half of all participants in
the Boston Marathon are female.
Telling Your Story Can Be Revolutionary
“It’s been a social revolution. The women out there running are not running to be Olympic athletes. They’re running because they feel a sense of fearlessness and empowerment.”
Switzer’s transition into a symbol for women’s rights began the day after the events of the Boston Marathon, immediately taking her story from local Rotary Clubs to high school athletic departments. Today, she is a renowned speaker at much larger events, and published a memoir highlighting her struggle for equality – Marathon Woman: Running The Race to Revolutionise Women’s Sports.
Switzer set up the ‘261 Fearless’ movement. They are global non-profit organisation that use running as a vehicle to empower and unite women through education programs, local women-only 261 running clubs and social events.
To read more about Kathrine’s story and find out how she helped shape women’s sport, click here.