If you followed the Boston Marathon this week, you may have noticed 70-year-old Kathrine Switzer finishing in just under 4 hours, 45 minutes.
If the name escapes you, 50 years ago Switzer made international headlines as the first female to run as a registered competitor at Boston — she entered using her initials — which at the time barred women. The iconic photo of a male race official trying, unsuccessfully, to physically remove Switzer and to tear off the race bib that identified her by the same number — 261 — she wore Monday became a symbol of the women’s rights movement.
By the way, Switzer was just 25 minutes slower over 26.2 miles at age 70 than she was at 20 — and likely would have been faster had she not stopped for interviews and photos — which is remarkable and speaks volumes about the myths we once clung to and the barriers that have fallen (regarding gender, age, race, etc.) over the intervening decades.
Indeed, in 1967, the conventional wisdom was that women were too “fragile” to finish much less muster the audacity to enter this endurance test. They faced formidable, progress-impeding discrimination, as evidenced by the dismissive, condescending words of the race director at the time: “Women can’t run in the marathon because the rules forbid it. Unless we have rules, society will be in chaos. ... If that girl were my daughter, I would spank her.”
You could say it was a different era. You could say such attitudes prompted Peoria native Betty Friedan to author her groundbreaking “The Feminine Mystique” four years earlier.
And you could say Switzer and her supporters had the last laugh. By 1972, women were free to compete in the Boston Marathon, as more than 12,300 did this week. In fact, women have come a very long way — in athletics and every other endeavor — doing what once was considered unthinkable. This year’s women’s champion, Edna Kiplagat of Kenya, would have finished 21st overall, ahead of 14,822 men with a time but 12 minutes off their champion’s pace.
Trails don’t get blazed because people follow the rules or accept the status quo.
Which brings us to Clara Johnson, who died last month at age 92 in Evanston. A 2004 honoree of the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, Johnson came to Peoria in the early 1940s, first to Bradley University, then to work as a chemist at the renowned Ag Lab here. Johnson was told she could keep her job until the man she’d replaced came home from World War II.
She stayed 40 years, becoming active in the local National Organization for Women chapter, League of Women Voters, NAACP and Tri-County WomenStrength (now The Center for Prevention of Abuse). She also dabbled in politics, running as a write-in candidate for Peoria mayor in 1976 to provide a female option on the ballot.
Later that same year, she’d give a Journal Star editor what-for regarding his stance on the Equal Rights Amendment in a Forum letter: “Doesn’t he know that one of the rules of ‘women’s games’ is that the rules are always changed in the middle of the game? At the appearance of a man, a bright woman must become a ‘dumb blond’ ... (The editor) says that if ERA requires physical ‘equality’ ... why should it? Men have equality under our Constitution and have they ever been required to have physical ‘equality’? Men have always had the good sense not to choose jobs which are physically impossible for them to do. Doesn’t he think women have the same good sense?”
We take a lot for granted these days. The courage and passing of these pioneers should not go unremarked.