This weeks Illustrated Women in History was submitted by Myfanwy Tristram for the Illustrated Women in History exhibition 2017 at Swindon Central Library.
Sometimes it’s good to question the status quo. The history of feminism is peppered with women who did so thoughtfully, systematically, or by changing the system from within.
Then there are those who act in a flash of anger, through impudence or sheer disbelief that the rules should be so tilted against womankind.
Kathrine Switzer falls firmly into the second category.
Born to an army family in Germany in 1947, Switzer moved to the USA at the age of 2. Her defining moment was to come in 1967, while she was a student of Journalism at Syracuse University. She tells the story of joining a men’s cross country team to indulge her love of distance running: “since there was no women’s running team there, or anywhere else for that matter”.
At the time it was widely believed that women simply didn’t have the required stamina. It was even rumoured that such pursuits would bring about the ruination of their reproductive organs.
Listening to her coach Arnie Briggs tell stories of the Boston Marathon, however, Switzer became impatient, despite Briggs’ insistence that the race was not open to women. That was quite true – in theory – but so strong was society’s assumption that long-distance running was a sport for men, nowhere was it written down in black and white that women were barred.
So, Switzer argues, no rules were broken when she put in her entry – using just her initial and surname – and received her race number in return.
And so it was that April 19 saw Switzer warming up on the start line with a field otherwise made up entirely of men. Like them, she was dressed in a grey sweatsuit, the standard weatherproof running apparel of the time. Unlike them, she’d added a streak of bright lipstick.
All went well until mile four, when an official tried to wrestle her off the course. Switzer was defended by her boyfriend, who was also running, and she went on to complete the race in four hours and twenty minutes.
Reactions were very much informed by the patriarchal zeitgeist: “If that girl were my daughter, I would spank her”, announced Boston Athletic Association director Will Cloney, while, far from recognising her myth-busting achievement, journalists asked what she was trying to prove, and whether she was a ‘suffragette’.
But Switzer was to describe that race as the defining moment in which she saw her life’s purpose laid out before her. She has dedicated the intervening years to campaigning and furthering the cause of normalising long distance running for women.
Since those days, and thanks in part to Switzer’s brazen rule-breaking, running has become a sport that is enjoyed by millions of women around the world. The apparel industry has adapted to recognise this, not least in the introduction of the sports bra. Current research even suggests that women do better at endurance running than men. Certainly the myth that running ruins your reproductive organs has been firmly put to bed.