Why Women Runners Are Punk Rock


In 1961, Julia Chase-Brand was a 19-year-old sophomore at Smith College when she did the unthinkable: register to run a 4.75 mile road race alongside men. She was met with derision, condescension, and paternal concern from the public. Running for longer than half a mile, after all, would be detrimental to her femininity, threaten her future fertility, and upend gender roles that were there for a reason. Running while female, until surprisingly recently, was among the most righteous and rebellious things a gal could do.

The trouble with women and modern long distance running came to a head after the 800 meter race during the 1928 Olympics. It was a hot day, and an incredibly fast field (the top three runners beat the then-world record time by 2 seconds), and several participants collapsed upon completion of the race. It was then determined that running for any distance longer than half a mile was dangerous to women. It was for their own good, really; according to everyone, if a woman were to run long distances, her uterus would surely fall out and come alive and, I don’t know, strangle all the men.

In 1961, the Amateur Athletic Union expressly banned all women from competing in all American road races. They were welcome to go ahead and run alongside the men, but their times wouldn’t count. This deeply upset avid runner Julia Chase-Brand, and so she let it be known that she planned on going ahead and ignoring the AAU’s rule against women running in road races and run alongside the men in Manchester, Connecticut. At the time, racing wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous as it is today, and the race was second in prestige only to the Boston Marathon. The media seized onto the idea of a girl crashing the running men’s party, and weighed in on her planned participation. The Times reports,

Newspaper headlines of the day said: “Move Over Marathoners, College Girl Horning In”; “Coed Just Likes to Run, Yet Burley Males Object”; “She Wants to Chase the Boys.”

That last headline is especially hilarious, because as any female runner knows, running behind men can sometimes be a smelly experience indeed. But I digress.

Chase-Brand showed up to the race in a one-piece skirted running outfit, a headband, a cross necklace, and lipstick. A race official asked her to leave, but she ran the race anyway, finishing in 33:10. Her time once again didn’t count, but she beat 10 men and impressed spectators and fellow runners alike. Two other women competed in the race, one of whom was a professional runner who was told she’d be banned from competition for life if she crossed the finish line. Chase-Brand did what the professional runner was banned from doing, and photographs of her feat were reprinted across the country.

Imagine the concernmongering and hand wringing and carrying on that happened when female distance runners tried to befoul the sacred Boston Marathon. In 1966, Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb decided she wanted to try running the 26.2 mile race, but because she was a woman, she wasn’t allowed to register. She overcame this by just slipping in among the field of racers and running the entire thing in a swimsuit and shorts (which, chafing? Ouch). Fellow competitors were confused but supportive.

“I was running along, and after a few minutes, the guys behind me were studying me,” Gibb said. “They said, ‘Hmmm, that looks like a woman.’ I turned around and laughed. ‘Well, it is a girl.’ They were very receptive. I don’t know what I would have done if they had said, ‘Get out of here,’ but they didn’t. They said, ‘This is great, a woman. I wish my girlfriend would run.’

After finishing the race in 126th place out of 500 runners, she used the $10 she’d safety pinned to the inside of her swimsuit to take a cab to her parents’ house, where photographers were waiting to make sure she was really a woman. They photographed her in her kitchen making fudge.

College student Kathrine Switzer caught wind of Gibb’s accomplishment when she interviewed a man who been beaten by Gibb by more than a mile, and she decided that she was going to try to run the race the next year. But Switzer took it one step further.

Switzer had run with men before. Local newspapers reported on participating in the mile race with her college men’s track team, and after the news broke, Switzer received a letter telling her that God would strike her dead. Undaunted, she decided to officially enter the Boston Marathon, get an official number, have her time officially count.

Switzer sent in her paperwork as “K. V. Switzer.” There was no “gender” field to check on the form, as race organizers just assumed that no woman would have the ovaries to defy the ban on female road racers. Switzer showed up to the starting line with her official number and began the race, only to have a race official attempt to forcibly remove her a few miles in, only to be thwarted by her boyfriend, who bodychecked the man out of the way. She finished the race in about 4:20, but race officials disqualified it, because of her gender.

Despite the highly respectable efforts by Gibb and Switzer, women weren’t officially allowed to run in the Boston Marathon until 1972, and they weren’t allowed to compete in the Olympic marathon until 1984.

Julia Chase-Brand watched American Joan Benoit-Samuelson capture the first ever women’s Olympic marathon gold medal in Los Angeles with tears of pride in her eyes. If she’d been born 10 years later, she wonders if that could have been her.

Now, elite runners like Kara Goucher, Paula Radcliffe, and Deena Kastor have had children in the middle of their racing careers, balancing elite long distance running with motherhood. There’s nary a displaced womb among them.

This Thanksgiving will mark the 50th anniversary of Chase-Brand’s boundary breaking road race in Manchester, and she plans to compete wearing the same outfit she wore in 1961. Even though her time then was thrown out by race officials it’s safe to say that for women who run, Chase-Brand’s first Manchester Road Race will always count.

Julia Chase-Brand A Leading Pioneer In Women’s Running [NYT]

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