“Who says it is not the most feminine thing a woman can do?”: The Feminization of Women’s Distance Running

By Cat Ariail

The New York City Marathon, scheduled for November 1, 2015, represents the premier event on the fall running calendar. Last year, women composed 20,572 of the 50,896 entrants, a number that correlates with the twenty-first century rise in female participation in distance running events. While men still are the majority of marathon participants, shorter distance distant races, particularly the half-marathon, feature female majorities. According to Running USA, 10.8 million women finished a road race in 2014, representing 57% of all road race finishers and 61% of half-marathon finishers in the United States.

Additionally, a bevy of women-only races (at least 90% female entrants) reflect the feminization of distance running. In 2013, Running USA counted 26 women-only races with more than 2,000 finishers. These events include the Nike Women’s Marathon and Half-Marathon in San Francisco, the world’s largest women-only race where finishers receive Tiffany necklaces from tuxedoed young men, and Walt Disney World’s Disney Princess Half-Marathon, in which often-costumed participants run through Disney’s parks as iconic characters cheer them on.

While the feminist merit of commodified events is debatable, majority women and women-only races nevertheless reveal women’s successful inclusion into, and even conquest of, the sport. Furthermore, the feminized and commercialized character of women’s distance running is not inconsistent with the early efforts to prove that women deserved the right to run longer distances. Two running events held in New York in the summer and fall of 1972 – the Johnson’s Crazylegs Wax Mini-Marathon and the New York City Marathon – serve as productive historical referents for considering the political significance of the current state of women’s distance running.

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In the five years since Boston Athletic Association’s (BAA) Jock Semple unintentionally launched an unofficial women’s distance running movement by aggressively accosting Katherine Switzer during the first few miles of the 1967 Boston Marathon, Switzer and an ever-increasing number of recreational female runners challenged conventional wisdom by asserting women’s ability to run long distances.   While most women runners did not identify as feminists or “women’s libbers,” their motivations nevertheless resemble the “personal is political” ethos of second-wave feminism.

Jock Semple aims to extricate Kathrine Switzer from the 1967 Boston Marathon.

Jock Semple aims to extricate Kathrine Switzer from the 1967 Boston Marathon. (Photo courtesy of Flickr)

In particular, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) attracted the ire of aspiring women runners. The authoritative institution of amateur sport in United States, the AAU insisted women should not run distances longer than half a mile. (For a historical perspective of the AAU’s resistance to women running longer distances, see Colleen English’s latest blog post on the women’s 800-meter race at the 1928 Olympics.) However, by 1972, enthusiastic and undeterred women runners had pushed the AAU to grant women “separate but equal” status in marathon-length events. Female runners could not start concurrently with male runners but, otherwise, could compete in marathons and other long distance races.

This nearly “official” status inhered the 1972 running season with greater significance for the nation’s leading women runners. At the 1972 Boston Marathon, Nina Kucsik, a housewife who became a prominent figure in the women’s distance running movement, persevered through digestive troubles to secure her victory. Her effort indicates both the pressure and persistence that characterized women’s effort to prove themselves deserving of the right to run distances. In order to adhere to the AAU’s “separate but equal” regulation, BAA director Will Cloney required female participants to start on the sidewalk adjacent to the street in Hopkinton where male runners began the race. As soon as the starting gun went off, women were permitted to enter the street and run as equals. Cloney’s artificial upholding of “separate but equal” irked the AAU, leading the institution to clarify their stance. The AAU explicitly declared that a “separate” race for women meant that women must start ten minutes before or after men. This reassertion of gender inequity would prove beneficial to women runners.

By 1972, Fred Lebow served a head of the New York Road Runners (NYRR) and director of the New York City Marathon. A maverick in the world of distance running, Lebow welcomed any and all publicity. Thus, he would twice use the AAU’s “separate but equal” distinction to his advantage and, somewhat contradictorily, the advantage of women runners. Rather than navigating the AAU’s “separate but equal” demand, Lebow first employed separatism as a strategy. In June, Lebow and the NYRR partnered with Johnson’s Crazylegs Wax to hold a women-only ten kilometer road race, or Mini-Marathon, in Central Park. The fact Johnson’s approached Lebow about sponsorship reflects the measure of respect women runners had earned, especially since most men’s races were not sponsored at this time. However, the atmosphere of the race suggested the antithesis of respect.

The Crazlegs Wax Mini-Marathon seemingly exemplified the downside of Lebow’s ready embrace of circus-like antics. “I was excited and apprehensive,” Charlotte Lettis told Runner’s World after the race. Continuing, she stated, “I thought women were finally being allowed to run distance. We were finally accepted as something more than freaks. I was proud.” However, in the words of Lettis, “Then the perversion started.”

An extra-large starting line banner loudly advertised the event while a collection of Playboy Bunnies mingled below the banner. Such starting line tableau never had been seen in the world of distance running. The race further distinguished itself from typical running events by requiring all participants to wear the Crazylegs t-shirt they received when registering because, in a savvy promotional move, race numbers were stenciled on the shirts. The combination of the Bunnies and shirts, as well as the insistence that women try Crazylegs Wax by shaving their legs before the race, illuminates the trivialization women were subjected to in order to enjoy the right to run 6.2 miles in a sanctioned-race. Lebow and Johnson’s respected women runners enough hold a sponsored women-only race, but their respect did not preclude sexist sensationalism that Charlotte Lettis appropriately defined as “perversion.”

A cartoon from the January 1973 issue of Runner's World that captures the sentiment of the 1972 Johnson's Wax Crazylegs Mini-Marathon.

A cartoon from the January 1973 issue of Runner’s World that captures the sentiment of the 1972 Johnson’s Wax Crazylegs Mini-Marathon.

Lettis further bemoaned, “But as usual it was a freak show – a money-making, newspaper-selling, shaving cream-pushing freak show.” She then declared, “Instead of advancing women’s distance running, the ‘Crazy Legs Marathon’ set women’s athletics back to the P.T. Barnum era of stunts and exploitations.” However, Lettis’s proclamation proved premature. Despite its pathetic promotionalism, the race evinced the progress already achieved by women runners, as well as the strategy for achieving further progress.

Although paltry compared to contemporary numbers, seventy-eight women competed in the race, a number that far exceeded the usual eight to ten women. This fact suggested that, given an inclusive race, more women would participate in the sport. Additionally, Jackie Dixon, a seventeen year-old from California, won the race in an impressive thirty-seven minutes. Her performance indicated that a talented population of women runners existed, ready to participate in the sport when presented with the opportunity. The Crazylegs Mini-Marathon highlights the paradoxical character of women’s quest earn the right to compete in distance running events equally, with promising progress accompanied by insulting exploitation.

That fall’s New York City Marathon further complicates how women runners best could achieve and experience equality in the distance running world. Since the AAU’s “separate but equal” regulation still prevailed, Lebow collaborated with Nina Kucsik to again contest the AAU’s dictate. Instead of the commercial opportunism that characterized the Crazylegs race, Lebow and Kucsik implemented publicity strategies that resembled those of second wave feminism, the Civil Rights Movement, and anti-war protests. When the women’s starting gun sounded on race morning, the six female competitors simply sat down. Further mocking the AAU’s rule, the women held signs that explicitly attacked the AAU. Their signs proclaimed, “Hey AAU. This is 1972. Wake Up!,” “The AAU is Unfair,” “The AAU is Archaic,” and, most creatively, “The AAU is Midevil.” When the men’s gun sounded ten minutes later, Kucsik and her fellow protestors abandoned their signs and began running.

After the race an apparently obtuse reporter asked the victorious Nina Kucsik, “So why do you do it?” She quickly retorted, “Just the way you phrase the question shows your attitude. Who says it is not the most feminine thing a woman can do?” She authoritatively continued, “Running is neither masculine or feminine. It’s just healthy.” More powerfully than Kucsik’s words, a stunning photograph was featured in the New York Times, allowing the nation to witness the differential treatment of women runners. In response, the AAU soon rescinded their “separate but equal” regulation, meaning that, in 1973, women were finally official and equal runners in the world of distance running.

The page of the New York Times featuring the photograph of the 1972 New York City Marathon protest.

The page of the New York Times featuring the photograph of the 1972 New York City Marathon protest.

While the political style protest conducted at the New York City Marathon seemingly contrasts with corporate promotions of the Crazylegs Wax Mini-Marathon, the tactics employed by Lebow and his allies in each event prove more similar than different. Both events reveal the importance of striking publicity and celebratory femininity, characteristics that have continued to propel women’s distance running into the present day. In different ways, the races exhibited that running could be one of “the most feminine things[s] a woman could do.” They represented inarguable expressions of women’s right and ability to run longer distances, yet they did so through means premised on women’s difference, thus reflecting the equality-difference conundrum that has bedeviled women’s effort for equality in sport and other male-dominated institutions.

Nevertheless, the strategies introduced at the 1972 New York events successfully were adopted and improved upon as women pressed for running opportunities throughout the 1970s. The 1977 Mini-Marathon best reveals how emphasizing publicity and femininity advanced women’s distance running both commercially and politically. Consistent with the inaugural Crazylegs Mini-Marathon, the Mini, as it became popularly known, continued to breach unchartered territory in women’s running. The 1977 edition proves no exception.

Due to the generous sponsorship of the cosmetic company Bonne Bell, the nation’s best women runners competed in the 1977 race. Bonne Bell founder Jess Bell, an advocate of women’s athleticism, offered travel funds for United States marathon record holder Jacqueline Hansen, 1977 Boston Marathon winner Miki Gorman, and other top runners. According the Runner’s World, “Never before had so many women – and so many fast women – been in the same race.” Along with attracting a high-quality field, the Mini experimented with computer-based timing technology, something not yet utilized in national, mixed-sex races. Such running talent and technological sophistication exhibited the progress attainable for women’s running with corporate support.

The 1977 Mini again illustrates the sport’s increased popularity. Thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign, the race attracted more than 2,000 participants. Three women’s magazines, Seventeen, Glamour, and Vogue, entered teams in the race, further demonstrating the compatibility between running, publicity, and femininity. Runner’s World also noted that eight fashion models, eleven stewardesses, six dancers, and fourteen actresses competed in the race. The Mini’s success confirmed Runner’s World’s belief that, “It would not be surprising to see running – now that fastest-growing women’s sport – become the new national sport of the American woman.” Because of women’s historic exclusion from sport, the possibility that distance running could “become the new national sport of the American woman” held political significance. The commercialized and feminized character of the race, however, offered a seemingly ayptical image of the political potency of women’s athleticism.

The politically prudent, commodified femininity of the 1977 Mini aligns with the strategies steadily perfected by Kathrine Switzer. Continually motivated by her experience during the 1967 Boston Marathon, Switzer combined her invigorated passion for the sport with the acute marketing acumen she developed as a public relations major at Syracuse University as she argued for women’s right to run. While her efforts first involved participating in as many running events as possible, she had converted her passion for women’s distance running into a full-time public relations career by the mid-1970s.

Like most women runners Switzer did not self identify as a feminist. But she nonetheless understood the political nature of her quest. She also increasingly recognized how commercial publicity could aid her political efforts. Already aware of the importance of optics, the 1972 New York events further crystallized the functions of publicity and femininity for Switzer. According to her 2003 autobiography, the 1972 Mini and New City York Marathons led her to realize fully that, “If we are going to make women’s running really happen, at least in my lifetime, it is going to take major commercial sponsorship. With big money we can create the events, develop the stars, put events in the public eye…” Switzer soon partnered with Avon to begin promoting women’s running, eventually resulting in a global women’s marathon series. Similarly, Bonne Bell, in addition to assuming sponsorship of the Mini, would conduct a popular series of women-only ten-kilometer races in the United States beginning in the late 1970s. These series consolidated corporate-sponsored femininity as the foundation of women’s distance running.

Recalling these developments, Switzer later noted, “In 1977, businesses began sponsoring women’s only competitions, initiating the total emergence of this sport as an entity for women.” Such corporately-driven support proved instrumental in helping women secure a women’s Olympic Marathon in 1984. Thus, the women’s Olympic Marathon proved both a political and commercial victory, reflecting the successful culmination of the strategies introduced at the 1972 New York events and refined by sponsored races throughout the 1970s.

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Finishers' medals from a Divas Half-Marathon. (Photo courtesy of Flickr)

Finishers’ medals from a Divas Half-Marathon. (Photo courtesy of Flickr)

The contemporary popularization of women’s distance running has diminished the overt political consequences. The images of women celebrating running 26.2, 13.1, or 6.2 miles by sipping wine or enjoying a spa treatment, the perks presented by the Divas Half-Marathons, suggests that the commercial impulse that once coexisted with the political aims of early women runners has since extinguished any semblance of political progress. Likewise, sometimes questionable health advice and excessive attention to body image indicates that aspects of the twenty-first century women’s distance running movement embodies values antithetical to the well-being of women. These realities demonstrate the downside of a reliance on corporate support. Nevertheless, the fact that recreational women’s running has become normalized should not deter an appreciation of the political significance of approximately 10.8 million women confidently moving their bodies according to their own desires.

Today, Oakley has assumed sponsorship of the Mini Marathon. Despite multiple sponsorship changes, the Mini has been held in Central Park every year since 1972, making it only two years younger than the more famous New York City Marathon. As the longest-running women-only race, the Mini is a testament to the economic, as well as the political, power of women runners. Whether competing in the Mini or other women-only events, women freely choose the run in overly-commodified and excessively feminized races. Their individual choices, whatever their motivation, collectively create a powerful presence. While the starting line scenes of the Mini, Nike Women’s Marathon, Disney Princess Half-Marathon, Divas Half-Marathons, and other women-only races no longer shock, titillate, or anger like the 1972 Crazylegs Mini or New York City Marathons, they feature thousands of women together participating in sport, an image that still holds much political significance as long as women remain second-class citizens in the sporting world.

Cat Ariail is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Miami. She researches women’s sport and race in the late-twentieth century Americas. You can contact her at cat.m.ariail@gmail.com.

3 thoughts on ““Who says it is not the most feminine thing a woman can do?”: The Feminization of Women’s Distance Running

  1. Hi Cat Ariail. I enjoyed reading your blog that discusses how women sort of fought for their right to be able to run long distance races like men could. It seems crazy that the AAU declared the “separate but equal” act in 1972 because that was only 43 years ago. Then again, it has not been 100 years since they passed the right for women to vote so women were still not treated equally to men, even in the 1970s. I read in my textbook, Major Problems in American Sport History by Steven Riess, that it has been a “slow process” for the boom in women’s athletics to take place. Do you believe this to be true? Thank you again for your post!
    Morgan Murphy

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  2. Hello Cat,
    I thoroughly relished reading your blog pertaining to women striving to eliminate the barrier blocking their ability to run long distance races with men. It’s a shame that inequality has set so many limitations for women to progress. However, I do believe women are finally receiving fairness in many sectors today that weren’t available 50 years ago. Yet many walls are still in the way for women’s advancement in society. I know that one day equality will encompass everything. Do you believe this will one day be possible?

    A few months ago, I trained for a half-marathon and ran with my girlfriend. She is a far better runner than I am, and is currently training for the Boston Marathon. This goes to show that, “Running is neither masculine or feminine. It’s just healthy.” Thinking about this, I was curious, do you run?

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  3. Ms. Cat Ariail,
    As an avid runner myself, I was very intrigued with your blog. I first started my love for running just over 9 years ago. As I reflect back on the many various races I entered when I first began, it is amazing to see how the number of female runners in all distances has increased significantly in just the past few years. To see the statistic in your article of 61% of the entrants in half-marathon races are females is mind-boggling. To look back and see that the movement began in 1972 with 2 very different races, which are still being held today is absolutely incredible. The first women runners of the movement weren’t looking to ignite a feminist movement, but they did. To say that there is a fire in the women’s running movement would be an understatement. The increased number of female only racing events and some of the enticing incentives to competitively race has continued to grow the female running world. In reading your article, and the push for continued advancement of women’s running, I recall seeing other articles discussing how quickly women’s long distance running times are closing in on the gap with men’s long distance times. What are your thoughts on the quickening pace of female distance runners? Do you think women will be able to run nearly the same times in longer distances as their male counterparts?

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