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Badass Ladies of History: Kathrine Switzer

In 1967, Kathrine Switzer made history by becoming the first woman to run the Boston marathon as a registered entrant. In previous years, women had run the race unofficially, presumably following the course without earning the same recognition as their male counterparts. It took Switzer’s race entry to change this.

Apparently unaware that women hadn’t been registered to run the prestigious and storied Boston marathon (and weren’t actually allowed to do so), Switzer signed up for the race as “K.V. Switzer,” the same name she used to sign the articles she wrote for her college newspaper. Her intention wasn’t to use a gender-neutral name in order to dupe race officials to let her run; it just so happens that that’s what happened. It wasn’t until the race was underway that anyone realized there was a woman with a race bib on the course, but as soon as her presence was noted, all hell broke loose. In an attempt to get Switzer off the course, a race official named Jock Sempel tried to physically remove her, reportedly saying, “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers.” Switzer’s boyfriend and race partner shoved Sempel away from them, and they were able to finish the race unmolested.

Legs and feet of someone running on a treadmillSwitzer’s bold act of running the race as an official entrant drew enormous amounts of attention and was made even more note-worthy by photographs that were taken of the incident involving Sempel. Unfortunately, women’s status in running suffered as a result of what happened at the ’67 Boston marathon: the Amateur Athletic Union banned women from competing in running events, further limiting women’s opportunities to solidify their position as viable competitors in the world of running. Switzer, however, was undeterred by this setback. Not only did she continue running, but she also changed the landscape of women’s running as it was known. Today, women’s participation in competitive running events, as well as their overall acceptance as credible athletes, is due in no small part to Switzer’s efforts.

In 1972, the Boston marathon began accepting female registrants; in 1975, Switzer came in second among women on the course officials like Sempel had tried to keep her from running only nine years earlier.

Switzer was instrumental in establishing the women’s marathon as an Olympic event and founded the Mini Marathon 10k race in New York City (now called the Women’s Mini 10k). Her dedication to the sport and to the role women should be permitted to play in it opened doors for the other female runners of her generation and to countless others who came after her. Recognizing the connection between athletics and female empowerment and self-esteem, she has established programs to make sports accessible to women in 27 countries and has dedicated her career to ensuring that women are treating as equals to their male counterparts in the athletic world.

Running is such a natural activity that it’s sometimes easy to take it for granted; however, every time I register for a race or run a personal best, I can’t help but think of the debt of gratitude I owe to Kathrine Switzer.

By Emilie

Runner, yogini, knitter, Manhattanite in spite of myself. Also blogging at http://www.icametorun.com.

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