The opening scene of the new PBS documentary “Makers: Women Who Make America” is an interview with Kathrine Switzer, who, in 1967, was the first female to run the Boston Marathon. Switzer, a junior at Syracuse University at the time, said her motivation was not to bust open new doors for women; she ran because she wanted to see if she could do it.
Switzer had been hearing her college track coach saying repeatedly that running the marathon was the best day of his life, and she wanted to try it for herself. Knowing females were not allowed to enter (it was believed the long distance would “make a woman’s uterus fall out”!), she listed her name as “K. Switzer” on the entry form, and showed up on the day of the race with her coach and also her then-boyfriend Tom Miller (an ex-NFL football player, which matters to the story). Part-way through the marathon, a press truck began filming Switzer, drawing massive attention. Before Switzer knew it, one of the race directors, Jock Semple (great villain name), ran to her, and got all up in her grill (my words) screaming “Get the hell out of my race!” She kept running, and when the director went to grab her, presumably to drag her out of the race, her football-player boyfriend performed a cross-body block on Semple, sending him reeling to the curb so Switzer could finish.
It was at that point, Switzer said, that she realized she better finish that race, even if it meant passing the finish line on hands and knees; otherwise she’d be used as evidence that women could not handle the race even if one’s uterus stayed intact. Switzer crossed the finish line—on her feet—in four hours, 20 minutes. It was only after the race, when she saw pictures of herself on the front pages of newspapers, that she understood she had just changed women’s sports forever. Love it.
There are plenty of gutsy women featured in the documentary who broke boundaries with the intention of doing so. For instance, tennis legend Billie Jean King signed on to play Wimbledon champ Bobby Riggs back in 1973, with the intention of proving to the world that a woman could not only keep up with a male athlete, she could beat him. She proved that right with her brilliant game of strategy, and is quoted as saying, "I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match. It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self esteem." This is the type of kick-ass story that makes me cheer out loud and also wonder whether I would ever have the ovaries to face a high-pressure challenge that could forever change the public’s attitude about women’s capabilities.
But when I woke up the morning after watching “Makers,” it was Switzer’s story that stayed with me. It’s because she hadn’t set out to prove a point that women could handle running a marathon; she was not trying to score one for feminism. She just wanted to run the race and, given her abilities and training, could not imagine why she shouldn’t be allowed to do it—so she did it.
Switzer’s story is a reminder to me that incredible achievements can happen when we follow our curiosity and desire without worrying too much about the hurdles. Maybe a little naiveté is even helpful. It is in hindsight that we talk about the boundary-breakers and revolutionaries, and history books make it seem these women (and men) were trying all along to leave a mark in the world. But how many feats and inventions started with the phrase, “I wonder what would happen if I…” When you think about it like this, really all of us have the possibility to make an enormous difference and change the world without setting out to do so.
I am a journalist, filmmaker, author, wife, and mom to an 8-year-old daughter. My most recent project is I Love Mondays: And other confessions from devoted working moms. Other projects explore raising only children, happily ever after, raising strong girls, and hot topics for Jewish women.
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