40 Years of Running with Exotic Animals


WATCHING THE OLYMPICS I sometimes feel like I’m in a parallel universe, one where women are equal. Or, at least, where no one is trying to legislate our vaginas, though once they did. They (and by this I mean men) thought if we ran 26.2 miles our uteruses would fall out. So, tomorrow as women run up the Thames, past the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, spare a thought for feminism, this year’s presidential campaign, the ERA, Title IX – and your uterus.

This is the year of the vagina when the word – as well as women’s reproduction – has been politicized, but tomorrow at the Olympics as women slog over more than 25 miles it’s clear how far (in at least one realm) we’ve come. The race is a landmark of sorts. This is the 40th anniversary of Title IX, as well as the 40th anniversary of women being able to run the marathon – not in the Olympics itself but in the marathon’s biggest, most important race, Boston. It’s also the 40th anniversary of the Equal Rights Amendment’s passage (if not ratification). Somehow those anniversaries even make me think longingly of Nixon. In retrospect he looks positively liberal. After all, he signed the ERA and Title IX. His mind might have been elsewhere, like breaking into the Watergate, say. Apparently he signed Title IX the week the men who broke into the DNC headquarters were arrested.

Before 1972 the marathon was, if not illegal for women, certainly against the rules. Men not only worried we’d damage ourselves but that we’d get hair on our chests and that we were too weak to finish the race. It’s hard to imagine.

The marathon is supposed to commemorate Pheidippides’ running from Marathon to Athens after fighting the Persians. He is said to have just made it to the city and yelled, “Rejoice we conquer,” when he died of exhaustion. Ever since, the race has been a test of athletic mettle and endurance; also now it’s a rather arbitrary sounding 26.2 miles – basically the distance on the low road between the two towns. The marathon is also a myth, maybe a lie, certainly some kind of Victorian pastiche crafted by Robert Browning. No one is sure if there was a Pheidippides or if he did run between the towns. Some theories have him (under a slightly different name) running the 150-odd miles between Athens and Sparta.

No matter, the marathon was the ultimate event in the first Athens Olympics in 1896, and, at least, two women wanted to compete. There was Stamatis Rovithi who ran the course before the games and Melpomene who didn’t so much run the race as run around it. She wasn’t allowed to join the men, so stuck to running on the sidelines. It took her four-plus hours, and long after the stadium had cleared and Spiridon Louis collected his medal, she ran her final lap – outside the stadium. She wasn’t allowed in. I suspect her treatment was a tad better than it might have been in ancient Greece. There, women risked death if they even attended the Olympics. They were also largely confined to the home, something I think the Republicans might adopt now if they got the chance, though they’d certainly balk at the man/boy love and homosexuality at the heart of ancient Greek culture.

Sixty years after the first modern Olympics, not much had improved for women and the marathon. Roberta Gibb Bingay, a California mil-spouse, had nearly the same experience as Melpomene with the Boston Marathon. She decided she wanted to run it when she realized that a trip home to Boston in April 1966 corresponded with the race. After a four-day bus ride, arriving only the day before the race, she woke up the next morning and hid in the bushes near the start. After about half the field had passed, she joined in, running in a swimsuit and shorts. Sports Illustrated wrote about her afterwards, “Boston was unprepared for the shapely blonde housewife,” and went on to describe her as “a tidy-looking and pretty 23-year-old blonde.” (Because, you know, that is the most salient detail, our looks). They also called her a “girl” and commented on her effect on “male egos” – and included this winning quote from Bingay herself about watching the race the year before: “I saw all those men running along the road, and they seemed like such exotic animals. I began to wonder about what sort of person would run in such a race.”

I love her “exotic animals” line. Somehow in a piece where she is dismissed as pretty, her quote reads as both ironic and a fine bit of table-turning. Race organizers did not think quite so positively about her entrance or her curiosity about just who would run the race. One official said afterward: “Mrs. Bingay did not run in the Boston Marathon. She merely covered the same routes as the official race while it was in progress. No girl has ever run in the Boston Marathon.”

Spoilsport. She was just like Melpomeme only with a better time, 3 hours and 21 minutes instead of four and some. If you look now at the official times for the race, Gibb (the name she goes by) is the women’s winner. She was given the title retroactively in 1996.

The next year in 1967, there were two women. Gibb was back and so too was a mysterious KV Switzer, who officially entered. The K stands for Kathrine and she didn’t use her initials in some ruse to get past the women-fearing officials, but rather because she liked the sound of them. She wanted to be a writer and her KV was a tip of the hat to JD Salinger and EE Cummings. Her finish wasn’t as fortuitous or as fast as Gibb’s. Another official, Jock Semple, chased after Switzer grabbing her race bib and sweatshirt and trying to yank her off the course. The pictures made the national news. The violence was shocking.

Get out of my race...

It took another five years for Boston to let women officially in and then twelve more years for the Olympics. In the 1980 games the longest women’s track & field event was the 1500 m. The marathon is about 28 times that length. In L.A. in 1984 Joan Benoit Samuelson got the first women’s gold. She continued to qualify for the Olympic marathon up to Beijing – when she was 50. Now except for one London winter, I am not a runner, but that one winter, I channeled Joan Benoit.  I liked her toughness, her New-England grit (vs. English reserve) and told myself if she could win gold in the first Olympic marathon only a few months after surgery, then I could manage three miles. On days the hoarfrost grew and snow crusted at the trails of my South London park, I told myself if she could run 10 miles in the Maine snow on the day she gave birth to her second kid, I could do a second lap around said park. But I never thought of what I was doing as a feminist statement – or a hard fought right. It never occurred to me.

Fly the flag, Joanie. Image by Manny Millan

This summer to celebrate the Title IX anniversary Nike has been running a campaign about famous women athletes breaking the rules. One of the lines is Joan Benoit Samuelson saying, “When I was growing up girls just didn’t run in public.” Another is Marlen Esparza saying, “Dad told me I couldn’t be a boxer.” The ad ends with Samuelson’s, “I’m 55 years old and I run close to 70 miles a week.” The lines are delivered not just by the athletes themselves, but also by teens and girls on the field and court, mouthing the older women’s words. It’s Nike inspirational at its best, powerful women rocking the powerful slogans, and here women’s athleticism is toughness commodified. But, it’s also toughness being advertised, that is to say, made to look like something we should aspire to. Instead of the men Switzer admired running the marathon, we are the exotic ones.

Sport is the place where we get to play tough. It’s like an inverse world, and looking at 1972, Nixon and the Republicans seem like some fever dream. Eisenhower was the first president, either Democratic or Republican, to support the ERA, and passing the amendment was part of every Republican presidential plank until 1980. Now it feels like we’re in a slow right-wing war of attrition against women’s rights – particularly this week as the contraception coverage in the healthcare mandate went into effect. Republicans are likening the mandate to both Pearl Harbor and an attack on religious freedom. Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly (a Republican, naturally) spoke in front of a podium with the hash tag “regligiousfreedom” before him.

Yes, I too am frowning at Rep. Mike Kelly like that woman on the right.

While it’s easy to point out how ridiculous he and the bombastic statements are, they remind me of Jill Lepore’s excellent New Yorker article describing how the NRA actively changed our perception of the language in the Second Amendment to make automatic weapons seem a God-given American right; so too this war on women. There is the calling us sluts or censoring the word vagina, say, but this started with Phyllis Schlafly and her Stop ERA movement. It seems obvious that if you work slowly and surely enough at the state and local level, you can transform the political landscape. It doesn’t even take that long. In retrospect 1972 seems positively radical and progressive. The original amendment overwhelmingly passed both the House and the Senate, while states fought over which would be the first to ratify it.

For me sports are the great hope of equality. It’s where women get to build strength, play on teams and be tough (vs. acting tough). Tomorrow, as well as running in the marathon, women will get to box for the first time in the Olympics (go Marlen Esparza!), while in her blog Olympic weightlifter Zoe Smith delivers an eloquent and funny takedown of the ludicrous things men and women have said about women weightlifters – including that she should go back to the kitchen. Yeah….weightlifting has been a sanctioned sport for women since 2000.

At a time when we’re fighting to keep rights, for two and a few hours on Sunday as women run through London, you too can feel like you’ve broken through. Enjoy it. Romney might announce that he won’t watch Rafalca compete, declaring dismissively, “That’s Ann’s thing,” but this, my ladies, is ours.

About Jennifer Kabat

A recent finalist for Notting Hill Editions’ Essay Prize, Jennifer Kabat (@jenkabat) is working on a book called Growing Up Modern, exploring art, ideology and the landscape from the modernist suburb where she grew up to the Western Catskills where she lives now. She’s been awarded a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for her criticism and teaches at NYU. She contributes to BOMB, The Believer and Frieze and was once an editor at the legendary style magazine The Face in London.
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One Response to 40 Years of Running with Exotic Animals

  1. There is definately a lot to learn about this topic.
    I love all the points you’ve made.

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