The 8th March every year is International Women’s Day – an occasion to celebrate the achievements of girls and women, and to promote gender equality. We’ve chosen to celebrate by having a look back at the history of women who run, highlighting a few of the trailblazers.
We’ve come a long way in the last hundred or so years…
At the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, women were not permitted to take part in the marathon. Nonetheless, thirty year old Greek woman, Stamata Revithi, ran the course the day after the official race, proving it could be done. Still, entry to women remained closed.
In 1926, Violet Percy became the first woman to officially run a marathon, as recognised by the International Association of Athletics Federations.
Just two years after Percy’s successful marathon run, the International Olympic Committee bans women from competing in any distance further than 200m, citing concerns that it would be damaging to their health. It wasn’t until 1960 that the IOC increased this distance to 800m at the Rome Olympics.
While women were not allowed to compete officially on the international stage, the rules were being tested. Dale Greig secured permission to run the Isle of Wight Marathon in 1964, setting a ‘world best’ of 3:27’45.
In the USA, Roberta Gibb snuck onto the Boston Marathon course to complete the race in 1966, after being refused entry on the basis that women were ‘incapable’ of completing it.
The following year, in 1967, Katherine Switzer became the first woman to officially enter the Boston Marathon, by deliberately not declaring her gender on her entry form. Race officials tried to pull her off the course, but were prevented from doing so by other runners.
Six women – Lynn Blackstone, Jane Muhrcke, Liz Franceschini, Pat Barrett, Nina Kuscsik and Cathy Miller – were permitted to run the 1972 New York City Marathon on the condition that they start ten minutes ahead of the men. When the gun went off, they sat down on the start line in protest, for ten minutes, before starting with the men.
Dale Greig continued to challenge perceptions of what women could do by running the 1972 London to Brighton 55 mile ultramarathon, seven years before women were officially permitted to do so.
In 1980, the American College of Sports Medicine publishes research that confirms the obvious: There are no medical reasons why women shouldn’t run long distances.
In 1984, Joan Benoit won the first ever women’s Olympic Marathon at Los Angeles – held 88 years after the first men’s Olympic Marathon.
Television celebrity, Oprah Winfrey trained for and ran the Marine Corps Marathon in the USA in 1994 (losing 80lbs in the process). In doing so she demonstrated that you didn’t have to be an elite athlete to be a runner. Of the experience, she said “Running is the greatest metaphor for life, because you get out what you put in.”
Also in 1994, the first Imperial Cancer Research Fund (later Cancer Research UK) ‘Race for Life‘ took place. 750 women ran in Battersea Park, raising £48,000. The women only running events caught the public imagination and were many women’s first introduction to organised the sport. Since that first race, hundreds more have followed, and more than 6 million women have raised around £500,000,000 to help find a cure for cancer.
While more and more women started running for fun and fitness, the boundaries at the elite end of the sport were pushed yet further. In 2002, Pam Read won the 153 mile Badwater Ultramarathon outright, beating all the men as well as the other women. In the same year, Rosie Swale-Pope starts her five year round the world run.
Paula Radcliffe ran the 2003 London Marathon in a world record time of 2:15’25” (a time that would stand for 16 years, until broken by Brigid Kosgei).
The first parkrun took place in Bushy Park in 2004, with thirteen runners and five volunteers. There are now 3 million parkrunners worldwide, and like Race for Life ten years earlier, the events have been responsible for helping countless women runners get started, and have encouraged the Couch to 5K movement.
At the London Olympics in 2012, Sarah Attar became the first Saudi Arabian woman to compete in an Olympic running event.
Sport England launch the ‘This Girl Can‘ campaign in 2015, to address the gender gap between men’s and women’s exercise habits. Though it is still the case that more men are active than women, the gap is closing.
Scottish veterinarian, Jasmin Paris, wins the 268 mile Spine Race in 2019. Not only did she win the race outright, while breaking the course record, she did so expressing breastmilk at the checkpoints to feed her year old baby. Her story made the news around the world.
Throughout the decade, the growth of different social media platforms makes it easier for women to seek running role models and inspiration beyond their immediate non-running surroundings. Also, more ‘everyday’ women are able to share their running stories through books, podcasts and magazine articles.
In the UK, at least, the gender gap between the number of men and women running has got closer than ever. 48% of the total UK applicants for London Marathon places in 2020 were women. Perhaps more significantly, among marathon ‘first timers’, there were more women than men applying for places.
And finally, though the coronavirus pandemic caused the cancellation or postponement of many running events (including Race for Life and parkrun) it has had a positive side-effect: With gyms closed, many people (including women) started running for the first time, with record numbers of people signing up for Couch to 5K.
Though there is undoubtedly still a long way to go before all the women who want to run feel able to do so, the situation is a lot, lot better than it was a century ago. For starters, there are no longer rules in place that prevent women from running on nonsensical medical grounds!
However, there are still barriers to participation, including concerns for personal safety. Until these are addressed, we can’t yet say that running is completely open for everyone.
At Lonely Goat Running Club, we are proud that there are as many women as men in our community (and some of them are in the image at the top of this page). Let’s all carry on doing what we do best: Supporting and inspiring each other – regardless of gender – to achieve our personal running goals.
To read about more inspiring women who run, check out our International Women’s Day article from 2020, plus our ‘In the Pen’ interviews with Anna McNuff, Laura Muir, Emma Reid, and Dame Kelly Holmes MBE.