There’s a wonderful quote by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Well behaved women rarely make history.” While this conjures, for me, an image of brazen women steeling themselves against injustices to act out in defiance, this also includes any women who pushes against limitations. Even quietly. Even in secret. To behave means to do what is expected, to obey the rules and color inside the lines. Some women make history not by trying to make history, but simply by trying to take part in what makes them happy, before history has decided that was the right thing.
That’s what Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb did when she became the first woman to ever run the Boston Marathon, 50 years ago this April. Read this article if you find stories of female boundary-pushing inspiring or meaningful, it definitely made me tear up as a female fighter trying to walk on new ground. At the time, in 1966, the marathon was a men-only endeavor and Bobbi had actually tried to enter into the event through the official means:
Two months earlier, she had written from her home in San Diego to the Boston Athletic Association to request a marathon application. Race director Will Cloney sent her a terse reply, essentially: No, she could not enter. The Boston Marathon is sanctioned by the Amateur Athletics Union, and AAU regulations prohibit women from racing more than 1.5 miles [emphasis mine]. Besides, the reply went, women are not physiologically capable of covering 26.2 miles on foot.
“At first I just laughed, it was just so ridiculous,” Gibb says. “I was running two or three hours a day, and it made me feel so wonderful. I thought, If only everyone else could feel as good as I feel when I’m running, it would probably solve most of the world’s problems. Then I got angry. It was a classic catch-22. How could women prove that we could accomplish something if we were never given a chance to try? That’s when I realized that if I ran the marathon, I could explode one of the false beliefs about women’s limitations.”
Bobbi snuck into the race by wearing her brother’s long shorts and a big hoodie, with the hood up to cover her blonde ponytail. The classic fear that many first-time marathoners feel of not finishing was overwritten by her fear of being found out and kicked off the course. But when Bobbi was spotted by other racers, she was not driven off the course but rather met with curiosity and encouragement. This is the part in the article where I started to cry, and that pretty much didn’t let up:
Less than a mile into the marathon, Gibb heard runners talking.
“Hey, is that a girl over there?”
“What? No way. Girls can’t run the Boston Marathon.”
Unsure how to react, she glanced in their direction and smiled as prettily as she could.
“Hey, it is a girl!”
“Really? That’s so cool. I wish I could get my girlfriend to run with me.”
Several of the guys immediately clustered around Gibb: “What’s your name?” they asked. “Where are you from? Are you going the whole distance?” She nodded, returned the same questions, and the men shared their stories without hesitation. Everyone was friendly and receptive.
A mile later, Gibb felt herself over-heating in her sweatshirt. She told her running partners that she wanted to toss it, but was worried about losing her cover. “Don’t worry, it’s a public road,” they said. “No one can stop you from running on it, and we won’t let anyone hurt you.”
Sans sweatshirt, there was no hiding now. Reporters on the press bus spotted her, and sent reports up the road: There’s a woman running the marathon today! Radio stations shared the news, and thousands of listeners rushed to the course. Most expected a sideshow act; at the time, Bostonians viewed marathoners as oddballs. They had a saying: “It must be spring, the saps are running again.”
Yet from Hopkinton to Boston, to her amazement, Gibb didn’t encounter a single hostile moment. Some onlookers cheered: “Attaway, girlie, you can do it!” A policeman did lock his eyes on hers at an intersection. Gulp.“There’s a runner a block ahead of you,” he said. “See if you can catch him.”
Women from the Wellesley College heard about the first woman running the marathon on the radio and flocked out of their dorms to go cheer for her. Reports of Bobbi as the first woman running the race was happening in real time and crowds gathered to witness her making history. She finished the race and the next day newspapers displayed a good dose of zeitgeist sexism in reporting her achievement:
Boston’s Record American filled its front page with the banner: “Hub Bride First Gal to Run Marathon.” An editorial opined: “A girl in the marathon! Egad, is nothing sacred? Are there no careers and hobbies and sports reserved for gentlemen anymore? Still, if someone would guarantee that all future lady runners would be as pretty as she, we might be willing to OK them as regular entrants starting next Patriots’ Day.” Sports Illustrated began its coverage with the title and subtitle: “A Game Girl in a Man’s Game: Boston was unprepared for the shapely blonde housewife who came out of the bushes to crush male egos […]”
Women were not allowed to enter the following year. One woman did register successfully using just her initials, allowing her to receive an official racing bib. Gibbs ran the race again (so, two women on the course this time) but officials linked arms and refused to let her cross the finish line in 1967. It wasn’t until Title IX was enacted in 1972 that women were officially allowed to enter the Boston Marathon as competitors, but only 8 women did so. Women like Gibb who push the limits do so out of their desire to take part in what makes them happy – their motivations are exactly the same as the men who love running. Because women are locked out of participation in events that celebrate these endeavors, their desire becomes politicized. And that might be good in some ways, because when one person gets a foot in the door they can hold the door for others. But it can be bad in some ways, too. Because women like Bobbi Gibb aren’t trying to misbehave. Bobbi attempted to register officially and was denied, so she snuck onto the course and tried to run it undetected; undetected, meaning she wasn’t going for attention. She just wanted to run. Of course, once she was found out her endeavor became political and she inspired countless people – the men she ran with, the women who ran out of their rooms to support her and cheer for her. It still makes me cry just thinking about it.
When asked about running, not the race but just running and how it changed her life, Gibb said, “It was the first time in my life I did something completely for myself […] It wasn’t my teachers telling me to finish my homework, or my parents begging me to be more like the other kids. The running was only for me. That made it exhilarating and so much more meaningful.” Ultimately, Bobbi Gibb ran this race for herself. Because she wanted to run. Her defiance means a lot to many more people than herself, but the audacity it takes for a woman to do something “completely for [herself]” is the very first act of defiance. It is the very first thing she did to misbehave: what she did was something that made her happy. Women aren’t supposed to do that. But, unexpected as it sounds, it has made a world of difference for all of us, that supposedly selfish act. Bobbi Gibb ran the race every year for four years and never received recognition from the authorities, and yet history is changed because of her. And, of course, because of the other women who also pushed on that closed door. She didn’t “ruin” the Boston Marathon, although she did put an end to the tradition of it being an all-male endeavor to run 26.2 miles on this particular stretch of road.
I’m not a marathoner. Just the other day Pi Nu, my trainer at Petchrungraung, was trying to get me to run a “mini marathon” (which in Thailand is 10K… very mini) with his son and some of the other boys at the gym in July. I’m just not into it, though I do run 10 K every morning. What Bobbi Gibb did still means something to me and I’m grateful to her. I’m grateful to all the women who have gone ahead and done something even when they weren’t “supposed to,” especially if they’re not “allowed to.” To finish this with another well-known but amazing quote, from Ayn Rand, “The question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me?” And part of what made me cry while reading this article was the fact that, on her first time out: nobody stopped her. Ultimately, the code of conduct that makes us afraid to defy unjust rules, or even afraid to ask for permission, is the fear of behaving badly. Of being rude or being denied; or the fear of being selfish. If I could say one thing to Bobbi Gibb, I’d say thank you for being selfish… it has made a difference for all of us.
You can read the entire Runner’s World article, “The First Lady of Boston” online.