There was a time in human history when women weren’t allowed to wear pants, vote, and compete in sports, among many other restrictions. One woman who lived during such a time was Kathrine Switzer, but she didn’t let those ridiculous restrictions keep her from doing what she wanted.
So, in 1967, the then 20-year-old journalism student at Syracuse University in New York competed in the Boston Marathon, believing it was about time that a woman officially ran the all-male race.
Although Roberta Gibb did it the year before, she didn’t actually sign up for the race and hid her gender by wearing a baggy hooded sweatshirt at the start of the event.
Back then, most of society held a notion that women in sports were unattractive. According to Switzer, the idea of long-distance running was considered questionable for women because it was a strenuous activity that may cause them to get big legs, grow a mustache, and their uterus to fall out.
To get into the race, Switzer registered using her initials (K.V. Switzer) instead of her full name, allowing her gender to remain a secret until the day of the race.
She wanted everyone in the event to know that a woman was competing with the men, so she wore lipstick and earrings for the run. A teammate told her to wipe off her makeup, but the bold woman refused.
A few miles in, she noticed a man in the middle of the road shaking his finger at her as she ran past. Then, she heard the sound of leather shoes and instantly knew that something was amiss.
“Instinctively I jerked my head around quickly and looked square into the most vicious face I’d ever seen. 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!’” Switzer wrote in her memoir, “Marathon Woman.”
The furious man was race director Jock Semple, who proceeded to grab Switzer’s bib number. He knocked down Switzer’s trainer, Arnie Briggs, to the ground. But luckily, her then-boyfriend Tom Miller—a 235-pound ex-football player and hammer thrower—blocked Semple out and pulled him off her.
She ran from the altercation and persevered to complete the race, crossing the finish line after four hours and 20 minutes.
“I knew if I quit, nobody would ever believe that women had the capability to run 26-plus miles,” she recalled. “If I quit, everybody would say it was a publicity stunt. 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. My fear and humiliation turned to anger.”
Switzer used her influence to push for women to be allowed into the Boston Marathon by 1972.
She went on to become an accomplished marathoner, winning the 1974 New York City Marathon and placing second in the 1975 Boston Marathon, achieving her personal best of two hours and 51 minutes.
In 2012, Switzer helped start 261 Fearless, a nonprofit that aims to empower women through running.
In 2017, she ran the Boston Marathon again at 70, wearing the same race number, 261. She finished the race in fours hours and 30 minutes, only ten minutes off from her first run in 1967.
“Running is a social revolution now. Women are not just doing it to get into races or to lose a couple of pounds, they’re doing it for fun, for their self esteem. It’s transformative,” she said at the time. “We’ve come a light year but we still have a long way to go.”
The Boston Marathon has also retired the number 261 in her honor.
The top right corner of her original 261 bib is missing because Semper was able to get a piece of it, but Switzer still has the rest of it hidden in her house.
This story is a great reminder of how far society has come regarding its treatment and view of women. Hopefully, the existing gender inequalities we still have today will be addressed, so we can live in a better and more equitable world.
Watch the three minute featured video about this historical event: