Once upon a time, running was considered to be a very dangerous sport for women. In the early 1900's, the Women's Amateur Athletic Association ruled that no women's race should exceed over 1000 meters because anything over that would adversely affect child-bearing abilities. Even through the 1960's, women were still not allowed to compete in races longer than a mile and a half. Change only came after a few fierce females broke the rules.
In celebration of Women's History Month, we're sharing the stories of the female pioneers of running who helped paved the way for inclusivity and began the fight for equality in our favorite sport. Our start line begins in 1922 with the first Women's World Games and while there really is no finish line in this story, we wrap up with the issues women still face today.
1922: Women's World Games & Alice Milliat
The International Olympic Committee only allowed women to compete in tennis, golf, sailing, and equestrianism. Because of this, Alice Milliat and the Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale created the first Women's World Games in 1922. The games took place in Paris and included 20,000 spectators. Milliat was a champion for female athletes and forced the inclusion of women's events in the Olympic Games.
Gymnastics and track and field were added in 1928, but women could only compete in the 100-meter race. The 26.2 mile distance would not include women until 1984, nearly 90 years after the men's marathon was introduced at the very first international Olympic Games in 1896.
Pictured: Portrait of Alice Milliat; British competitors at the Women's World Games in 1922.
1926: Violet Piercy
Violet Stewart Louisa Piercy was an English long-distance runner who is recognized by the International Association of Athletics Federation as having set the first women's world best in the 26.2 distance on October 3rd, 2916. She is considered to be the pioneer of women's running and her time stood as the world record for the next 37 years, until American Merry Lepper ran 3:37:07 in California in 1963. The current world record holder is Englishwoman Paula Radcliffe with a time of 2:14:25 set in London in 2003.
In reaction to Piercy's feat, the Westminster Gazette wrote, "It must be hoped that no other girl will be so foolish as to imitate her." Piercy's response was, "I am the only long-distance runner in this country and people rather shout at me about it. I really don't see why they should. Running is about the healthiest form of exercise a woman can have."
Pictured: Violet Piercy running.
1954: Diane Leather
Diane Leather Charles was the first woman to run a mile in under 5 minutes with a time of 4:59.23. Her impressive accomplishment was not officially recognized and did not make world record books, despite it being the "world's best" at the time. Track and field's governing body then, the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAFF), did not acknowledge records for women's distances greater than 800 meters.
This IAFF policy was put into place after six women collapsed crossing the finish line of an 800-meter Olympic event in 1928. The New York Times reported that the distance was "too great a call on feminine strength". The London Daily Mail quoted doctors saying that such "feats of endurance" would cause women to "become old too soon".
Leather went on to improve her time in 1955 to 4:45.0. She held the unofficial record for seven years.
Pictured: Diane Leather
1966: Bobbi Gibb
In her brother's Bermuda shorts and new boys running shoes, Bobbi Gibb became the first woman to ever run the Boston Marathon. She was not a registered runner, but she finished at 3:21, beating more than half the field - all of whom were men.
Gibb hid in a patch of bushes near the start for a bit. When it was almost time to run, she hopped in line. Despite her efforts to mask her feminiity, men quickly realized she was a woman. In a recent podcast with The Extra Mile, Gibb notes, "When I ran the marathon and the men saw I was a woman, instead of throwing me out, which they easily could have done, they supported me. They were happy I was running. They said, 'we won't let them throw you out'. I don't like to see it twisted around. The men were great. It was the system that was off."
Pictured: Bobbi Gibb post marathon in 1966.
1967: Kathrine Switzer
Kathrine Switzer was the first registered female to run the Boston Marathon. In 1967, she registered under her initials "K.V. Switzer". Because woman were not allowed to compete in races longer than a mile and a half, the registration form did not include any sort of gender specification so race officials did not realize she was a woman.
Four miles in, race director Jock Semple attacked her in an attempt to remover her from the course. Switzer's then boyfriend and a few other surrounded male runners defended her, tossing Semple aside.
54 years later, women are still being attacked. 83% of female runners experience some form of harassment. Runner's World recently released a documentary called "NOT TODAY" that tells the story of three different women who experienced violence while out running alone. Only one survived. Mollie Tibbetts and Wendy Martinez were both killed, while Wendy Martinez were both killed, while Kelly Herron survived her encounter. Their tragic stories have had a ripple effect on their families, friends, and even strangers, and inspire the question:
What can we do to make running safer for women?
To watch the 38 minute film, click the button below.
Pictured: Kathrine Switzer being attacked by Jack Semple.
1972: Female Runners Protest AAU, NYC
In 1972, the New York City Marathon was in its 3rd edition of the race and for the first time, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) allowed women's results to count. They could only compete, however, under a "separate but equal" condition that they would start the race 10 minutes before the men. That sunny Sunday in October, the race gun went off for the women's start and all six women sat down in protest for 10 minutes. When the men were ready to go, the women stood up and ran alongside them.
The photograph of the women protesting was printed across four columns of The New York Times and the story spread wildly. The AAU was so embarrassed by the sudden onslaught of media that they very soon scrapped their "separate but equal" ruling.
Pictured: The iconic photograph of six women protesting the AAU "separate but equal" rule during the 1972 NYC Marathon.
2021: Woman To Watch
It's incredible to think how long it took for women to be considered qualified participants in foot racing. Following the AAU's rule change, women's racing exploded. By 1980, 10% of marathon runners in the United States were female. By 2016, that number increased to a record 44% and while it's amazing to see this change, it's 2021 and women are STILL facing equity challenges in running.
The NCAA has very different race distances for men and women in Cross Country. in NCAA Division I and II Championships, the men race 10K and the women race 6K. In Division III, the men race 8K and the women 6K. Molly Peters, head coach of Women's Cross Country and Women's Nordic Skiing for Saint Michael's College, has been fighting to change these discrepencies for years. In her position, she attends coaches' meetings before the Championship meets and every time she has a chance to send new legislation to the NCAA, she ALWAYS asks for equal distance. She found success in getting the New England 10 to raise their Conference Championship to 6K. It was only 5K up until a few years ago.
"My biggest lession has been to NEVER GIVE UP. I seem to finally be making headway in the Nordic world and it is mainly because I keep asking. Other coaches have finally joined in and we seem to have the majority for the first time. It is exciting and I am hoping that things will start to change next year. If we can ge the NCAA distances changed for Nordic Championships, it will be a major step in the right direction for Cross Country. They also recently changed the World Cross Country Championships to equal distances, which is another huge step in the right direction and more reason to have equality at the NCAA level!"
To read more about Molly's work, click the button below.
Thank you for following along all week as we celebrate these incredible women. If you're a female athlete, we would love to hear about your experience in both the competitive and non-competitive world of sports! Please reach out to Kate, our Digital Communications Manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org with your story.