The Boston Marathon Didn't Allow Women Until 1971, But These Women Ran It Anyway

Dating all the way back to 1897, the Boston Marathon is the world's oldest annual marathon, and among its most prestigious. While today, women make up nearly half of its finishers, the race wasn't always that way. The historic event didn't allow women to enter until the surprisingly tardy year of 1971. Even so, two women went down in history when they each broke the rules and ran the Boston Marathon anyway.

Running Undercover

When 23-year-old Roberta Gibb tried to register for the 1966 Boston Marathon, her rejection letter was short and to the point: "This is an AAU Men's Division race only," wrote race director Will Cloney. "Women aren't allowed, and furthermore are not physiologically able." In fact, race regulations didn't allow women to compete in any race longer than 1.5 miles. Gibb was outraged. "I could run 30 miles at a stretch!" she told Competitor Magazine. Instead of getting discouraged, she decided to run the marathon anyway.

The day of the race, she hid in the bushes, waited for enough runners to pass, and broke out into a run. According to Runner's World, "from Hopkinton to Boston, to her amazement, Gibb didn't encounter a single hostile moment. Some onlookers cheered: 'Attaway, girlie, you can do it!'" She finished in 3:21:40, among the top third of the male finishers.

Elite female runners competing at the 2015 Boston Marathon.

And Then There Were Two

The next year wasn't quite as lucky. Inspired by Gibb's run, 20-year-old Kathrine Switzer registered for the 1967 Boston Marathon using only her initials. On the day of the race, her coach Arnie Briggs, her boyfriend and nationally ranked hammer thrower "Big Tom" Miller, and Switzer shuffled in with the rest of the runners, Switzer's oversized sweatshirt keeping her gender undetected by race officials. "All around us the men were pleased to have a woman in their presence," Switzer recalls on her website. "More than ever before at a running event, I felt at home."

But around mile four, things changed. A race director named Jock Semple spotted her and began to chase her down, grabbing her by the shoulder. He swiped at her bib number, missed, and grabbed her by the shirt. Suddenly, "a flash of orange flew past and hit Jock with a cross-body block," she writes. It was Big Tom, her boyfriend. High on adrenaline, the runners sped ahead, knowing that they'd probably be arrested at the finish line. "If I don't finish, people will say women can't do it, and they will say I was just doing this for the publicity or something," Switzer told Arnie. "So you need to do whatever you want to do, but I'm finishing." When they reached the finish line, there were no police—just throngs of rain-soaked reporters. Switzer finished in 4:20:02.

Gibb and Switzer's historic rule-breaking led the Amateur Athletics Union to allow women to enter their marathons, including Boston, in 1971, making 1972 the first Boston Marathon with an official women's champion. Eight women ran and finished that year. In 2016, the number of female finishers exceeded 12,000.

There's a lot more history to this historic race. To learn it all, check out "Boston Marathon: History by the Mile" by Paul C. Clerici. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Kathrine Switzer: First Woman to Enter the Boston Marathon

Written by Ashley Hamer May 13, 2016

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