Women's History Month: Katherine Switzer

  • Published
  • By Sarah Doster-Anderson
  • Women's History Month Committee
Throughout March the Women's History Month committee here will recognize women who have shaped America's history and its future as part of this year's monthlong campaign.

The National Women's History Month theme for this year is "Honoring Women in Public Service and Government."

In 1967, 741 entrants lined up in bitter cold temperatures to run the 71st annual Boston Marathon. Among those entrants stood a 20-year-old runner registered simply as K.V. Switzer, who was about to break the gender barrier of the historic race.

Katherine Switzer was studying journalism at Syracuse University when she began unofficially training with the men's running team. Arnie Briggs, the university mailman and a 15-time veteran of the Boston Marathon, took the young Switzer under his wing. In late December 1966, Switzer and Briggs made an agreement that if she could prove that she could run the distance, he would take her to Boston.

There was nothing about gender in the Amateur Athletic Union rules or on the entry form for the race, as women were considered too fragile to run such a long distance. Three weeks before the race Switzer mailed in her form and fee to compete in the Boston Marathon. The morning of the race she was issued bib number 261 and lined up at the starting line.

Switzer's gender had gone unnoticed by officials as she took her place at the starting line but she was warmly welcomed by other runners. Around the 4-mile mark, she was confronted by race officials and enraged race director Jock Semple grabbed her by the shoulders and demanded she get out of the race and "give me those numbers." Before Semple could grab Switzer's numbers, he was blocked by Briggs and Switzer's then boyfriend, Tom Miller. Switzer crossed the Boston Marathon finish line in 4 hours, 20 minutes.

Women would not be allowed to officially enter the marathon for another five years, but her historic run opened the door for female athletes everywhere. Switzer would later win the New York City marathon, place 2nd at the 1975 Boston Marathon and be an instrumental leader in adding the women's marathon to the 1984 Olympic Games. Additionally, Switzer returns to the Boston Marathon every year to provide commentary to local TV stations during the race.

In 2015 nearly 13,400 women started at the finish line for the 119th annual Boston Marathon. Women from all over the world will line up in Hopkinton this year to follow in Switzer's historic footsteps and, as usual, she will greet them at the finish line.

While Switzer didn't serve in a public service or government capacity, her efforts ensured access and equal opportunity for others. Switzer, and others who have served in public service, have led the way in establishing a stronger and more democratic country.