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  • Breaking into the MarathonWomen's Distance Running as Political Activism
  • Jaime Schultz (bio)

The 26.2-mile marathon foot race is not for the faint of heart. It is not for the unfit, the untrained, or the unprepared. And until 1972 there remained another stipulation—one put in place by the sport's governing bodies—it was not for women. In spite of that prohibition, American women "crashed" men's events from at least 1959. Through open acts of athletic defiance, they insisted on equal opportunity, physical autonomy, and corporeal respect.

Based on oral histories with eleven of these "gatecrashers," I explore their contributions to feminist activisms of the 1960s and 1970s.1 Ten of these women edged their way into men's marathons between 1959 and 1972. Another, Julia Chase-Brand, would have joined them had she not agreed to a deal with the all-powerful Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) following her infiltration of Connecticut's men-only five-mile Manchester Road Race in 1961. AAU officials told her they would begin to authorize women's cross-country races if she promised "to never embarrass them again by going on the roads in a men's road race." The marathon had been her "childhood dream," but Chase-Brand complied with the AAU's ultimatum, sacrificing her ambitions for the greater good. "And that spring, 1962," she recounted, "they began cross-country for women."

A growing body of literature on feminist activisms informs my analysis of the women's marathon movement. I am particularly interested in activisms that occurred, as Stephanie Gilmore describes, "in places we do not expect and among women who do not necessarily embrace the term but who do the work of feminism."2 In related studies, historians Melissa Estes Blair and Annelise Orleck have explored women's political efforts "outside explicitly feminist groups," expanding the way we conceptualize feminisms and the places and the times at which aligned efforts took place.3 Their work contributes to "a more capacious definition of feminism," as Gilmore encourages, one that accounts for the "complexities and nuances" of women's efforts—the "less [End Page 1] explicit, uncanonized, popular activism" that fueled women's movements.4 Although the women's movement and the women's marathon movement did not actively engage each other, they were nonetheless complementary and mutually reinforcing.

Notable in this line of research is Finn Enke's Finding the Movement, in which he prioritizes his research around "contested space and place rather than around feminist ideologies and identities." Enke pushes the conventional boundaries of the women's movement by investigating alternative sites of activism, including bars, public parks, and softball diamonds. He considers women who fought for equity within these contested spaces "not by virtue of membership in a named feminist organization or adherence to an already-identified feminist agenda, but because they participated in the politicization of particular places in which we may see the provisional coalescences of a movement." In the same way, women runners effectively politicized marathons by claiming their right to pound the pavement of public roads and, in so doing, "asserted new ways for women to move through the public world."5

If not explicitly or consciously feminist activists, early women marathoners were, most assuredly, physical activists. By fusing physical activity with political activism, they effected social change in at least four significant ways. First, the women refused to accept the proscription against long-distance running. Against the advice of medical authorities, sports organizations, and prevailing social mores, they started running, trained doggedly, and trespassed upon men's marathons at great risk to their reputations, livelihoods, and safety. Second, in disrupting these marathons, acts of "civil disobedience," as one journalist called them, the runners challenged dominant ideas about women's physical capacities, thus "proving the weaker sex is a helluva lot stronger than we males give 'em credit for being," as another reporter put it in 1966.6

Third, the athletes became visible symbols to other girls and women that they too could push themselves in a sport like distance running. "The sad thing is that women didn't even know they could do that," lamented my oral history interviewee Roberta...