That a woman is assaulted by a man is not news. It happens on average every 9 seconds in the United States.
But one particular assault that happened in the streets of Boston, Massachusetts in 1967 changed women’s history. It was captured by photojournalist Harry Trask and was seen around the world. The assailant and the woman would years later work together for common cause.
The repercussions of that assault would cause the woman to reflect, 48 years later, that the incident was the spark that led to major opportunities for women.
On the morning of April 19, 1967, Kathrine Switzer pinned on her official numbers for the Boston Marathon, 261. She had driven with her team from Syracuse, New York, where she was a college student. She was accompanied by her coach and running partner, Arnie Briggs; her boyfriend, football player and all -American, Tom Miller; and another friend, John Leonard. Kathrine had been training with Arnie for 7 months. It was a wet, cold, and miserable day for a run. The team of four ran along without incident, and Kathrine was welcomed by the other runners. At this time the Boston Marathon was an all male event. It was an accepted belief that women could not compete in such a rigorous athletic activity. She might be “ruined”. Her uterus might fall out, she might grow hair on her legs, and other myths were common. Never before had a woman run “with numbers,” that is to say, officially signed up. The year before Roberta Bingay had slipped int,o the race from the bushes along the course route and finished.
About 4 miles into the race, a press bus pulled up along the runners and spotted Kathrine. Shouts of “Look! A woman in the race” rang out from the bus. Race director Jock Semple jumped off the bus in a rage and attempted to push Kathrine out of the race and pull off her “numbers”. Arnie tried to reason with the man. Luckily, Tom reacted and executed a football block, knocking the official to the ground. Kathrine and her companions ran on, and after a time, the press bus got tired of trying to talk to her about her motivations for running.
Kathrine and all of her team finished the race. The next day, the photo series of the assault, with Jock’s look of rage evident, was seen around the world. Suddenly, women participating in athletics was a hot topic, and Kathrine was in the center of it all.
Kathrine would repeat the Boston Marathon in 1970 and compete and win in the New York City Marathon in 1974. She would hang up her racing sneakers in 1976, after her feet were wounded by perpetual blisters. The science of running shoes was in the pre-historic era in the 60’s and early 70’s.
She would go on to a career in event planning and sports communication, organizing women’s marathons all over the world. She was instrumental in gaining Olympic recognition for the women’s marathon event. She witnessed Joan Beloit become the first female athlete in the world to win the Gold Medal in the Woman’s Marathon in the 1984 Olympiad in Los
I had the pleasure to hear Kathrine speak in St. Louis recently, a guest of Girls on the Run.
Her story is so compelling, and not only did I walk away motivated, but truly inspired into action. She told the story of her father encouraging her to run a mile a day when she was twelve. I thought to myself “I can run a mile a day.” And the next week, I started doing just that.
Then, I took to heart her advice on reaching a goal. In setting out to train for the Boston Marathon, Kathrine told the audience “I had a coach, a partner, a plan, and a goal!” Serendipitously, a week or so after hearing this, I received an
email about Big River Running’s START program, training beginners to run a 5k. I had participated in several 5k events, but walked about 80% of the course. My goal is to run 80% or more of the Commitment Day 5k Run on January 1, 2016. The START program offers coaching, a running partner, a plan and a goal. Bingo! After confirming that it was appropriate for me, I signed up and am now training 4 times a week toward my goal.
Kathrine’s memoir has just been published, Marathon Woman, and it is a wonderful book, a rich and entertaining history of a key player in advancing
gender equality. Harry Trask ‘s photos went on to be included in Time-Life’s 100 Photos That Changed The World. You can see the photos on www.rebeccanowandthen.com
It is not often that you get a chance to meet in person a woman who changed history, and it was my honor to meet Kathrine Switzer and read her story.
There is an old adage that states “Behind every successful man, there is a woman”. I think the Kathrine Switzer story turns that saying on its ear. Would she have gone down in history without her running coach, her boyfriend, the photographer, and even her assailant? Most likely, she would not. It is my goal in this column to also recognize the men that champion women’s equality, and these men were instrumental in advancing women’s participation in athletics, not just in the Boston Marathon, but worldwide.
Let’s Celebrate Our History!
Rebecca Now is a speaker, collaborator, and event planner, passionate about exploring and celebrating American Women’s History. More information at www.rebeccanowandthen.com