#SheWhoShines 5. Katherine Switzer (And Bobbi Gibb) - The Women Who Took On The Boston Marathon

This 5th #SheWhoShines blog was started with the intention of writing about Katherine Switzer, a woman who is best know for being the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967. In researching Kathrine, I learned that in the previous year, 1966, there was another woman who ran the marathon. Her name was Roberta 'Bobbi' Gibb, and the difference between the two is that Kathrine ran as a numbered entry, however Bobbi ran un-registered (She hid in the bushes, and jumped into the race as it started). After completing the race, they both inspired millions of women to break social norms and defy prejudices about women in sports, therefore this blog is dedicated to both Bobbi & Katherine. 


Bobbi trained for 2 years to run the marathon, and upon applying in 1966, she received a letter from the race director informing her that women were not physiologically capable of running marathon distances, and that because of the rules given by AAU, women were not allowed to run more than 1.5 miles, competitively. Bobbi realised the social significance of choosing to run the whole 26-miles and she completed the race in 3 hours 21 minutes. 


When Katherine registered for the race, she signed up as 'K.V Switzer', a neutral name meaning her gender was an oversight. Her decision to run came after her coach, Arnie, insisted that a marathon was too far to run for a 'fragile woman'. After proving him wrong in training, Arnie became her biggest enthusiastic and they ran the distance of the marathon together. 

Katherine made world headlines in 1967 after the race official, Jock Semple, tried to physically remove her from the race, shouting "Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!" He seemed like a man out of control, but he was also a man of his time. Her then-boyfriend, Tom, pushed Jock to the ground to ensure Katherine could continue running. After that, she realised she needed to finish the race. "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." Katherine finished, with bloody and blistered feet, after 4 hours 20 minutes.

I wondered why other women didn’t run, thinking that they just didn’t get it. Wait a minute, maybe they believed all those old myths like running ruins your reproductive organs, and it scared them away because they didn’t know better and nobody gave them opportunities to disprove this nonsense. My folks and Arnie had given me this chance, and it dawned on me that I was not special after all; just lucky. My thinking rolled on: The reason there are no intercollegiate sports for women at big universities, no scholarships, prize money, or any races longer than 800 meters is because women don’t have the opportunities to prove they want those things. If they could just take part, they’d feel the power and accomplishment and the situation would change. After what happened today, I felt responsible to create those opportunities. I felt elated, like I’d made a great discovery. In fact, I had.
— http://kathrineswitzer.com/about-kathrine/1967-boston-marathon-the-real-story/

This famous photo shows Katherine being tackled by Jock Semple and many people mistakenly see the picture to be a group of men harassing her, however the man to her left is her coach, Arnie, trying to help. It should be noted that Katherine and Bobbi have both said that they experienced positivity and encouragement from others taking part in the race, suggesting that there were people enthusiastic for women to run. 

Bobbi and Katherine went on to inspire millions of women to take up sports, particularly running. Something that, back then, not many women did. Running a marathon was a man's activity so to have a woman run, and successfully finish, challenged many preconceived ideas and prejudices about women in sport. They tirelessly campaigned for women to be allowed to run the marathon, and after years of 'unofficial' competing, it was finally in 1972 that the rules were changed. However, they had to meet the same qualifying time as the men: 3 hours 30 minutes.

Jock Semple said "The amateur rules here say a woman can't run more than a mile and a half. I'm in favour of making their races longer, but they don't belong with men."

This piece of history shows how set-in-its-ways society can be. Rules are rules, and we are encouraged to obey, rather than question. Women like Katherine and Bobbi encourage us to challenge rules, question rules, and when necessary, defy the rules.


Stay tuned for the stories of 5 more incredible women, and at the end of this week (12.02.16) we'll be opening the votes to find out whose story you find the most inspiring.

The 3 women with the highest amount of votes will have their names beautifully etched on our Limited Edition white candles for International Women's Day. 

Get involved on Facebook and Twitter by using the hashtag #SheWhoShines and sharing this post, or tell us about who inspires you in the comments below. Please feel free to share the images in this post.