Feminism-- The Long Run
To My Daughters, Jenna and Nobie,
We looked strange on those first runs—me running backwards in front of you on the track, trying to find ways of encouraging you to keep going. On hot days I would spritz water on you as we ran. To onlookers it must have appeared that I was one of those parents who tries to re-live track and field glory days through my children. There are many reasons that I brought you to the sport, but the main reason was to give you tools for living in the world the way that it is, and to give you the stamina for the life-long work of trying to improve it. You will run many races in your life, but there is one race you will run that has no finish line, and the preparation you have had as a distance runner is preparing you for this.
I recently read This Bridge Called My Back, and even though it was written roughly 37 years ago, it almost felt as if it was in response to our current administration. While reading the essays in the book, I kept wondering if the struggle for true feminism, which includes equality for everyone, is like running in a race with no finish line. Pat Parker’s essay, Revolution: It’s Not Neat or Pretty or Quick, was especially poignant as it addressed much of what I was wondering throughout the book. She says:
“The reality is that revolution is not a one step process: you fight—you win—it’s over. It takes years. Long after the smoke of the last gun has faded away the struggle to build a society that is classless, that has no traces of sexism and racism in it, will still be going on. We have many examples of societies in our lifetime that have had successful armed revolution. And we have no examples of any country that has completed the revolutionary process.” (Moraga and Anzaldua)
These are hard words to hear, and yet they ring true to me. They remind me that the fight for a feminist revolution is a race with no finish line.
I think there are moments when people fight so hard and see a step forward for progress that they begin to feel like the finish must be near, that the struggle for equality can’t be that much longer. I thought I could spot the finish line far off when Obama was elected to the presidency for the first time-- I felt that again in this most recent election with the record number of women elected to Congress-- and especially with Sharice David’s win. As I read an article to both of you and your brother on the couch about David’s win; I struggled to hold back tears of excitement and emotion that I still can’t fully name. Yet as moved as I am by these moments, I know that this particular marathon is longer than 26.2 miles and that victories that appear to be finish lines are desert mirages.
So many of the rights that you have now are yours because of the generations of women who fought and suffered for those rights. Just as these women worked for the women who would come after them to have a better life, I know that you will do the same for those who come after you. Each generation of feminism is part of a relay race, with each of us completing a different part of the course. This is not a race that we run alone. Despite the fact that the course is constantly being lengthened, we each run our stretch of this race the same way we would if it were a real footrace: with sharp mental strategy and all the heart that we can pour into it.
The very act of being able to run down your street as a young woman, on the track, in a race, or as part of a team is something that was fought for. The Women’s 1928 Olympic 800-meter race should have gone down in history as an extraordinary day in the history of long distance running. Instead, that heroic race was twisted into lie about the fragility of women’s bodies and used to exclude women from the race for 32 years. On that fateful day, of the nine women racing, six of the athletes broke the world record; however, what the media focused on was how tired many of these women appeared after finishing the race and how a few of them collapsed. Only days after the event, the International Olympic Committee cited scientific reasoning to support their decision to exclude women from future running of the 800-meter track and field event, though this reasoning was mostly based on mythology at that time about women being the weaker sex. While I have long been aware that the 1928 International Olympic Committee removed the 800-meter race from the Olympics because of women collapsing after the race, I only recently learned of the incredible achievement by the six women who broke the 1928 world record that day. I had heard about this race on many long-distance running documentaries, but the names of the women were never mentioned. I want you to know: Linda Radke of Germany smashed the world record at that time by seven seconds; she was followed closely by Hitomi Kinue of Japan, while K. Gentzel of Sweden claimed the bronze (English). This discrimination against women is no different from today when women give birth and instead of recognizing this as a major athletic accomplishment, all praise is given to the doctor attending the birth, or when people fixate on a woman’s clothing choices instead of their professional achievements.
Women were expected to run without showing signs of fatigue, but this has never been the case for male distance runners. In the 1908 Olympic games, Dorando Pietri took the lead in the final lap of the marathon only to become disoriented during the race and begin to run the wrong way on the track. After falling three times in the stadium he was finally lifted by race officials across the remaining 10 yards of the race. Though he was disqualified he was celebrated as a hero (Klein). It’s important to note that Dorando Pietri’s collapse predates Linda Radke’s heroic win in a highly competitive race. Pietri didn’t even legitimately finish his race, while Radke won in a highly competitive race and set a new world record. We need to ask why has history worked so hard to keep these strong women invisible? Why was the passion that these women demonstrated for the sport used to make them seem weak?
Catrion Menzies-Pike, after conducting extensive research on women’s distance running, suggests that it’s more than just a concern over women injuring themselves that formed these views around distance running in the 19thand 20thcentury:
“It’s a very middle-class concern with modesty. I think it has to do with breasts, I think it has to do with sweat and movement. There are just numerous examples of commentators, sports officials, public figures decrying women.” (Williams)
A world that does not want women have control over their bodies, reproductive rights, and sexuality, does not want to see women running. Performance artist Karen Finley says of her Passion of Terri Schiavo performance: “America has a history of focusing on women in crisis, on women who have been victimized.” Finley’s performance looks at how Terri Schiavo, in a fatal coma, becomes someone who others can become a champion for, all the while using her as a way to promote their own political issues. Schiavo’s body quickly becomes the property of a heated political debate. (Finley) A culture that is accustomed to looking at women’s bodies as a site for exploitation and promoting their own ideas will react negatively as women take ownership of their bodies, and when women show that their bodies are strong, this further agitates the culture that worships the idea of women needing rescuing. We don’t need to be rescued, we want equality instead.
The world will say that the rights that we are fighting for are too much, and encourage us to settle for a watered-down version of what is needed. When the world won’t make a place for the rights of others you must make one yourself; like Kathrine Switzer with her “illegal” running of the Boston Marathon in 1967. Switzer entered the race before women were allowed to run in it. Race director Jock Semple is forever captured on camera trying to push Switzer out of the race, and rip off her race bib from her shirt. Expect people like Jock Semple when you advocate for change, in the race with no finish line. Jock Semples come in the form of people who are homophobic, ageist, sexist, racist mobs, corrupted politicians and institutions. Remember that because of Kathrine Swizer, Joan Benoit’s victory in the 1984 Inaugural Women’s Olympic Marathon was possible. Undeterred by Semples’ attack during the Boston Marathon, Switzer spent the next five years working to convince the Boston Athletic Association to allow women to run the Boston Marathon. She was successful. She also collected medical evidence on women’s stamina and endurance which she used to persuade the International Olympic Committee to include the women’s marathon in 1984 (Sturgis). It’s important to remember that activism is not just heroic moments, but the constant chipping away at the issues, the invisible work.
As women fought for equality in the workplace and reproductive rights for their bodies, Switzer fought for women to be fully included in long distance footraces, further underscoring that our bodies are powerful and belong to us. She literally and metaphorically ran her leg of the race well and continues to do so today both by running marathons and through her activism. I think about the women like her who have been running this race for such a long time, who have passed so many mile markers on the course, who have seen the course lengthened unfairly by prejudice. They must be so exhausted by now. If I were to go out on the course to tell them how far they have come in pushing forward the rights of others, I don’t know how much it would help, because by now they know that this race doesn’t end. We have to be careful how long we leave our fellow runners out on the course, thinking that just because they are making great progress in record time, that they can hold their pace indefinitely—we have to know when it’s time run a leg of the race ourselves.
It's necessary that you understand that feminism is bigger than just your individual rights as a woman: it’s about making sure that everyone has equal rights. When someone’s rights are trampled on because of their race, sexual orientation, age, class, or religious beliefs, this is a major step backwards for all of us. Pat Parker reminds us that an illusion “we suffer under in this country is that a single facet of the population can make a revolution.” Previous generations of feminism failed by focusing exclusively on the rights of women who were white, middle class or wealthy. We need to address the issue that there are many people facing discrimination on multiple fronts simultaneously. (Moraga and Anzaldua)
The women’s running movement also still has some work to do. While there are many women of color winning distance races, the overall representation of women of color participating in distance races has lagged behind. Thankfully this issue is beginning to be addressed, but this is a very recent change, within the last decade. Groups like RunGrl are working to increase the visibility of black women long distance runners. Jasmin Nesi one of the groups founders says:
“We didn’t see ourselves in the media, we didn’t see enough resources, tools, or really any community talking about distance running with challenges specific to black women.”(Booker)
Toni Carey and Ashley Hicks-Rocha began a similar running movement with Black Girls RUN!a group which fosters a welcoming environment for all runners, especially for black women. The group is 255,000 members and growing, with 70 chapters in the United States. (Wassner Flynn)
You’ve been watching me run part of my leg of this race without a finish line, soon it will be your turn. If I close my eyes I don’t see the other runners’ race bibs all having numbers, but instead: #fem2, #metoo, #addwomen, #girlslikeus, #rungrl, #timesup, and 261 as a nod to Kathrine Switzer. Your brother’s and father’s race bib also lack numbers and read, #equality, because they will be running too. During the times when sexism, racism, and bigotry are raging out of control, remember that distance running has given you tools for how you advocate for others. You know from running that you have stamina to work at something difficult for a long time. Distance running taught you how to pace yourself, so you can take on advocacy one mile at a time. Most of all, I hope that distance running has taught you that in a world that tries to make your body a battle ground for political issues, your body belongs to you alone: it’s strong and powerful, just like your mind and your heart.
Booker, Kristin. "“Rungrl Is Making Distance Running More Diverse”." 2018. Web2018.
English, Colleen. "“Not a Very Edifying Spectacle.” the Controversial Women’s 800- Meter Race in the 1928 Olympics." Sport in American History2015. Web.
Finley, Karen. The Reality Shows. New York: the Feminist Press, 2011. Print.
Klein, Christopher. "The Olympic Marathon’s Outlandish Early History." History. Web. August 19, 2016 2018.
Moraga, Cherrie, and Gloria Anzaldua. This Bridge Called My Back. fourth ed. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1981. Print.
Sturgis, India. "“Meet the First Woman to Run the Boston Marathon (Illegally) 50 Years Ago—Now 70, She’s About to Do It Again”." The Telegraph. Web. April 17, 2017.
Wassner Flynn, Sarah. "Run Club Profile: Black Girls Run!" Women’s Running 2018. Web.
Williams, Elizabeth. "“The Long Run”: An Author Processes Grief and Feminism through Running." Salon (2017). Print.