Women in Running
For the second time, I travelled halfway around the world to watch Shannon Rowbury, someone I coached in high school, compete at the international level. How lucky am I? Also, how lucky is Shannon to be able to compete in sports internationally? Opportunities like that were not always available for women.
Shannon’s event, the 1500 meters, was not an Olympic event for women until 1972. The first women’s Olympic marathon wasn’t until 1984. Among the reasons why women weren’t running distance races earlier in history are that it was considered “un-feminine” and because of a myth that too much distance running would make a woman unable to have a baby. Also, there was the quite sexist attitude that women did not belong in the “man’s world of sports.”
It wasn’t that long ago that there were no high school or college teams for women. If a female had an interest or talent for running they had to train with the boy’s or men’s team. And, since there was such a small pool of women running, do you think there were women’s running shoes and running shorts? How about sports bras?
Women runners were among the first female athletes to fight for their rights. In 1966, since the Boston Marathon did not allow women runners, Roberta Gibb ran as an unofficial participant. In 1967, Katherine Switzer famously ran Boston as K. Switzer, wearing bib #261. Race officials unsuccessfully tried to rip her bib number off of her.
Title IX, a controversial federal amendment passed by the US Congress in June 1972, required equal opportunity for women in education, including sports. There are pros and cons to Title IX but there is no doubt that it changed women’s athletics, especially women’s running. From 1974-1981, women were beginning to participate in track & field on college teams. The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) was their governing body. Finally, in 1982 the NCAA decided to offer women’s championships in track & field, like they already did for men.
Now, 37 years after Title IX passed, there are two generations of women who have grown up without limitations in their athletic opportunities. Or at least without the same limitations their grandmothers had.
There are many great female runners who were pioneers in the sport, the people who got us to where we are today. Doris Heritage Brown, Francie Larrieu, and Julie Brown excelled in women’s running in an era when it was just getting started. Grete Waitz’s and Tegla Loroupe’s wins at the New York City Marathon had a worldwide effect on the way women’s running was viewed.
In fact, our own Pamakid Runners played a small role in this pioneering spirit. Back in 1970 women were not allowed to run in the Bay to Breakers race. There is a great picture from 1970 with some still active club members holding up signs calling for the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU, the then governing body of running) to allow women to run the Bay to Breakers. Thanks to pressure from the Cunneen’s, the Paulson’s, the Boitano’s, and of course Walt Stack, to name a few, race officials that year relented and women were allowed to run, although they were not given official entrant or finisher status.
By 1977 more women’s running opportunities were emerging. These included the Avon race series, a global women’s only running circuit; and locally, the Examiner Games, an indoor track meet at the Cow Palace. At the 1977 Examiner Games they held the inaugural women’s masters mile. And Pamakid runner Jeanie Kayser-Jones not only participated but was the first winner of this event, taking the mile in 5:41.
So after watching the 12th IAAF World Athletics Championships, where women had the same competition opportunities as men, I encourage you to take a moment to appreciate where women’s running is today and how far it has come.