There is an interesting article in Outside Magazine online penned by Sally Bergesen, founder of Oiselle, the Seattle-based women’s athletic apparel company, asking where are the female equivalents of the sub-four minute mile or the sub-two hour marathon? (Article)
“How are our own benchmarks so unfamiliar?” she asks rhetorically.
Her conclusion, in part, is that “the dearth of women’s milestones and tradition is a result of our relatively recent entry into competitive sports.”
I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment, but perhaps in that understanding there is another way to look at the underlying question.
What if there have already been such women barrier breakers, but since women’s athletics have only in recent times come into the spotlight, we missed them in their own day?
On May 29, 1954 England’s Diane Leather ran the first sub-5 women’s mile in Birmingham, England (4:59.6), just 23 days after Roger Bannister achieved history’s first sub-4 men’s mile in Oxford (3:59.4). And Ms. Leather’s sub-5 came just three days after another of her attempts fell just short at 5:00.2 on the same Birmingham track. Why wasn’t that milestone celebrated like Bannister’s?
Was it because one minute per lap over four laps of a 400 yard track equating to a sub-4 mile had a more aesthetically pleasing symmetry than four laps at 1:15 per lap equating to sub-5? Or was it that women’s athletics hadn’t yet reached into the public consciousness?
What if women’s sports had always been the centerpiece of cultural athletic attention rather than men’s? What if women had engineered running tracks rather than men? Would those tracks have been laid at 400 meters?
As for the marathon, what if the messenger sent to Athens from Marathon in 492 B.C. to tell of the Greek victory over the invading Persian force had been a woman and not Pheidippides? What if a sub-3 hour marathon had been the big Kahuna milestone?
Beth Bonner of the U.S. ran 2:55:22 at the 1971 New York City Marathon to become the first woman under 3:00. But women’s running wasn’t accorded an equal position with race organizers at the time, nor in the mind’s of the general public, or the sporting press. So it wasn’t publicized as groundbreaking despite the fact that it was.
It wasn’t till Norway’s Grete Waitz entered the scene in 1978 running 2:32:30 in her debut in NYC that women’s marathoning was begun to be taken seriously from an athletic achievement standpoint. Fairly quickly following came the first Women’s Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles in 1984. And attention to women’s running has been on par with men’s pretty much ever since.
Men created the rules, regulations, and distances of both ancient and modern sports based on men being the primary competitors. Why do you think a basketball hoop is 10 feet off the ground? Because it’s based on the stature of male athletes, not female athletes. And yet women play basketball with a hoop 10 feet off the ground.
Like so much else in life, we see how it has always been a man’s world, and women have been made to fit within its man-defined parameters. That is primarily a cultural holdover from our might-makes-right pre-agricultural evolutionary past.
The fight for women’s equality along many societal metrics is an on-going effort that has seen peaks and valleys like any other long journey. In 1972, the passage of Title IX legislation in the U.S. made it illegal to discriminate against female participation in sports at federally funded schools. That was a peak.
But in seeking new vistas ahead, let’s not overlook the road already travelled, and the mountains already climbed.