TThe 2022 New York City Marathon – the world’s largest – will mark 50 years since a demonstration race helped make marathon running more accessible to women.
On a clear day—Sunday, October 1—the gun went off to start the New York City Marathon, but the 500 spectators stared not at the runners but at six women who fell at the starting line.
Dubbed “The Six Who Sat”, Lynn Blackstone, Pat Barrett, Liz Franceschini, Nina Kushik, Cathy Miller and Jane Murke protested against the governing body for marathons, the Amateur Athletic Union, to show the absurdity of its rule that women could run in the marathon, but only if they ran a separate race – starting 10 minutes before or 10 minutes after the men’s start.
“They sat for 10 minutes in protest against the Amateur Athletic Union calling for separate but equal competition for women,” New York said times reported then. “The AAU does not sanction competitions in which men compete against women. But as soon as the 272 men were ready to go, the women stood up and began running with the men over the 26-mile, 385-yard course.
As the photo above shows, protesters held signs that read “Hey AAU It’s 1972. WAKE UP,” while other signs called the AAU “dishonest” and “archaic” and “mediocreevil.” new York times reports that one spectator yelled, “Men and women together!” In fact, it was New York Road Runners Club president and NYC Marathon co-founder Fred Lebow who tipped off the New York times that something will happen at the marathon. Patrick Burns, who famously photographed spontaneous celebrations in Times Square on VJ Day, captured the image of the women on the starting line featured above.
“They were very media savvy,” said Kerin Hempel, current CEO of the nonprofit New York Road Runners, which organizes the New York City Marathon. “Having the sit-in in New York, bringing media there, and also bringing in signs, is helping to really catapult the women’s running movement forward in a way that women just jumping into races on their own hasn’t moved the needle as much long before that.”
The demonstration came at a time when perceptions of the role of women in American society were expanding, including in the athletic arena. A few months earlier, President Richard Nixon signed Title IX in a law best known as the law that banned sex discrimination in schools and paved the way for more opportunities for women in school athletics. running is already headed in that direction; just weeks ago Title IXat the passage, the New York Road Runners had started a women-only race.
Marathon organizers got the message; they did away with separate start times. Two years later, a woman won marathon in New York—Kathrine Switzer—seven years after becoming the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967, when she registered under the masculine-sounding name KV Switzer. Women are now hard to miss in marathons, rising from 12% of the 10,477 New York Marathon finishers in 1979 to 42% of the 53,640 finishers in 2019. In 2021. marathon in New Yorkwomen make up 45% of the 25,020 graduates.
Read more: How Boston Helped Invent the Modern Marathon
In recent phone conversations, three of the “Six Who Sat” reflected on what went through their minds as they participated in the demonstration and the meaning behind their courageous action.
“In the ’70s, the women’s movement was very strong, growing and very popular,” says Jane Muerke. While she never was runnerusually just cheering on her husband, the then-28-year-old felt so outraged by the disparate treatment of male and female runners that she joined the sit-in, then ran about half a mile and stormed out.
Pat Barrett was 17 at the time and remembers participating in the sit-in to protest that the AAU was “using their authority to hold us to a certain level.” The experience was nerve wracking though; she just remembers thinking the whole time how she was going to navigate the next 26 miles. But she remembers the male runners siding with the protesters, laughing at the absurdity of the different start times.
“They were very supportive,” Barrett recalls. “Men actually wanted women to be able to have that opportunity” to compete at the same level.
Lynn Blackstone, who was 32 years old when she participated in the sit-in, says, “I was just in the right place at the right time to be a part of history.” Women runners in 1972 faced many sexist remarks from men, running past them, she says, while some men falsely told the women that running would cause their uteruses to fall out . “There will only be comments about your legs, comments about how you look,” says Blackstone.
Participating in the protest marked the beginning of a lifelong love affair running for Blackstone and she went on to graduate NYC Marathon three times. She went through two pregnancies and still runs today, at age 82, with members of the Central Park Track Club, who call themselves “The Medicare Group.”
Whether they’re runners or not, Blackstone says the lesson of the sit-in for women is the same: “Don’t limit women, and women shouldn’t limit themselves.”
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