Sunday, June 13, 2010
Kathrine Switzer vs. Bobbi Gibb
(above, the original incident involving Kathrine Switzer; on right, Bobbi Gibb, on top at the time of her run, and at bottom more recently as a lawyer; below, Switzer on left at a recent book signing)
Kathrine Switzer was in NYC yesterday signing autographs at the NY Mini 10K run. She is a minor feminist icon for having run the Boston Marathon back in 1967, back when women were prohibited from running marathons because it was thought to be dangerous for them to run that distance.
Switzer entered the 1967 Boston Marathon as K.V. Switzer, got an entry, showed up on the day of the race, and started running. When Jock Semple, the official in charge of the race, saw her running, he ran up to her and demanded that she turn in her number and stop running. Her boyfriend then shoved Semple and sent him flying. Switzer finished the race in four hours and twenty minutes. (Another woman, Bobbi Gibb, who had hidden in the bushes near the start, also ran that same marathon with much less fuss and finished an hour ahead of Switzer, despite having spent the previous four days and three nights on a bus from San Diego.)
Switzer later went on to become an excellent marathoner, winning the New York City Marathon in 1974 with a 3:07 and recording a personal best of 2:51 in the 1975 New York Marathon.
Certainly Switzer deserves credit for having run a marathon back in the day when popular opinion was that women were too fragile to do so. And it took a certain audacity to officially enter the marathon knowing that it was a men's race. Feminists the world over undoubtedly cheered when Semple was sent flying. And make no mistake, it was the photographs of this incident that made Switzer an international media star. But when a woman's boyfriend assaults someone, how does that make her a hero?
Semple was made out to be the villain in this incident, but think of it from his point of view. Switzer had entered under false pretenses, and Semple must have felt she was mocking his race, the same way people dressed as clowns had done in previous years. So it would have been perfectly natural for him to be angry. And bear in mind, Semple did not single-handedly decree that women should not be allowed to run long distances; at the time the AAU didn't have a single race for women above a mile and a half.
Switzer has since gone on to essentially make a career of that 1967 incident.
Bobbi Gibb, the woman who finished an hour ahead of Switzer in that original Boston marathon with much less fanfare, went on to receive her BS from the University of California in 1969, majoring in philosophy with a minor in mathematics and fulfilling all the pre-med requirements. (She claims she was denied admission to med school because of her gender.) According to Wikipedia:
"Gibb then worked with Professor Jerome Lettvin at MIT on epistemology and color vision while studying law. In 1974, Gibb entered the New England School of Law, graduating in 1978. She worked as a legislative aide in the Massachusetts State Legislature, studied natural systems, and pursued her interest in sculpture and painting. She joined the Massachusetts Bar in 1979. While raising her family, she practiced law, specializing in real and intellectual property. She worked, for part of that time, in patent law...In 2000, she produced a documentary on her art and running entitled Where the Spirit Leads. She pursues a career in art and writes on a wide range of topics including economics, spirituality, the nature of natural systems, and the phenomenon of subjective experience. Recently she joined the Cecil B. Day Neuromuscular Laboratory, in Boston, as an associate working to find the causes of and cures for neurodegenerative diseases, specifically amyotrophic lateral sclerosis."
I have no idea whether Bobbi Gibb was actually good at all of those things or was just a dilettante. (Either way, she sounds highly intelligent.) But she had the courage to try a lot of different things, and had the courage to run the marathon without a boyfriend for protection. It seems to me she'd make a far better feminist icon than Kathrine Switzer.