By Michael Kaufman
As tens of thousands of runners take to the streets of New York Sunday in the New York City Marathon, about 40 percent of them will be women. That will come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the sport of distance running over the past few decades. Women’s participation in marathon running has been taken for granted for so long now that a shameful piece of sports history in our country is all but forgotten. And–in the bizarre way we have been conditioned to look at history–Richard Nixon is better known for his contribution to equal rights for women in athletics than are Pat Tarnawsky (better known today as author Patricia Nell Warren), Kathy Switzer and Nina Kusick. But Nixon merely signed the Title IX law passed by Congress in 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in schools that receive federal funding—including in their athletics programs. Tarnawsky, Switzer, Kusick and countless other courageous women athletes across the country are the true sheroes who made it happen and impelled Congress to act.
They began fighting for their rights at a time when the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), governing body for amateur sports in the United States, barred women from taking part in distance races. Dr. Nell Jackson, head of the AAU women’s track and field committee, defended the practice in a 1971 article published in Runner’s World magazine. Jackson said, in effect, that distance racing was physically dangerous to women, hurts the AAU program for women’s competition, and involves “only a few older women out for a lark.” Bear in mind that marathon running was still not a mass participation activity at the time. Just 127 runners took part in the first New York City Marathon in 1970, and only 55 actually finished. In 1971 there were only about 30 women distance runners nationwide. By then they were permitted to run in most marathons but their times were not recorded.
Among the 30 was Switzer, who ran the Boston Marathon in 1967 without permission and was accosted by a race official who tried to block her path and shouted “get the hell out of my race.” Another was Kusick, among the finishers of the first NYC Marathon in 1970. And it was Tarnawsky who wrote a scathing reply to Jackson in Runner’s World. Fear of injury to women, she said, is “the last gasp of Victorian over-caution.” She explained that women distance runners report they feel physically better after training for races and running in them. “Finally,” she observed, “we women long distance runners notice that nobody worries publicly about the effects of long distance efforts on the men. Nor is anybody using it as a pretext to curb the men’s activities. Yet imagine the temporary effect that a marathon in 90-degree heat must have on a guy’s ability to be a father.”
As for the snarky comment that women distance runners are “merely out for a lark,” Tarnawsky replied, “No, Dr. Jackson, we’re not out for a lark. We’re not even merely dead serious. We are out—each in her own way—to get back something that an over-repressive, over-protective society took away from us.
“Me, for instance. Oh how I resent the fact that a Dr. Jackson in my high school refused to allow girls’ track but kept us doing inane calisthenics….I loved long runs but I had to do them on playgrounds, where I could beat most any boy at a sprint or longer. Had an enlightened coach been around, he might have made a fair cross-country runner out of me.
“College was even worse,” she continued. “There were Dr. Jacksons who taught us fencing, modern dance, and even how to walk balancing a book on our heads. But no distance running, with all the superb mental and physical benefits than women can get from it.
“Our society does its best to keep women fretting on the minimal levels….Now that I am 34 and have finally stumbled back into what I wanted to do all along, I intend to make up for lost time. I am sure that each of the other women marathoners could tell you a similar story about her motive. It is a motive that makes us very stubborn. And you will find it a very hard motive to fight.”
This Sunday, thousands of women will run in the NYC Marathon thanks to those stubborn fighters for women’s rights. They made history and they deserve to be honored.
Michael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.