Decades ago, women-only road races made sense. Societal notions on the athletic abilities of women left them banned from participating in most road races up until the 1960s and 1970s. Women-only races emerged as a beacon of the women’s running revolution: if we couldn’t participate in road races, then we would make our own.
That victory has long since been won. Women are no longer tackled when they run the Boston Marathon. Our gender comprises almost 50% of participants in road races, especially the half marathon.
So why do women-only road races, like last weekend’s Tufts 10k for Women, still exist? Are they a celebration of women’s running, an opportunity to introduce women to run, or a sexist remnant of an older era of road racing that promotes stereotypes about women in sports?
The 1928 Olympics was the first games to allow women to compete in running events. One woman briefly collapsed during the 800 meter race (as we all know, this is a risk you take when running at a gut-busting sprint). The International Olympic Committee (IOC) concluded that running posed too much of a strain on women’s bodies and banned distances of 800 meters and longer from the Olympics. Only in 1960 were women even allowed to run the 800 meter race again.
In 1961, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) banned women from competing in any road races in the United States. A 19-year-old woman, Julia Chase, ran a 6.5 mile race in Massachusetts to protest, but the media disregarded her performance.
It wasn’t until the moment in 1967 when Kathrine Switzer was tackled by the race director of the Boston Marathon that women in running races came under national attention. Switzer was not the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, Bobbi Gibb did so discreetly in the previous year, but Switzer was the first woman to be recognized as a woman while running a marathon road race. Switzer thus became a crusader for women’s road racing during the 1960s and 70s.
In 1972, the AAU permitted women to run road races including marathons, so long as they met any qualifying standards for men and started 10 minutes after the official start of the race. In this same year, the New York Road Runners Club launched the first women-only road race. The Crazylegs New York Mini Marathon covered six miles and featured Playboy Bunnies at the start of the race to attract attention.
Six years later, Switzer began the Avon International Running Circuit and hosted women’s races across 27 countries. Switzer sought to debunk myths about women and running (including the myth that running would lead to infertility) and create opportunities for women to run. Most of all, Switzer wanted to prove that women could run road races in order to convince the IOC to include a women’s marathon in the Olympics.
At the time of the Avon race series, women needed the opportunities to run, especially if they did not meet qualifying standards of other road races like the Boston Marathon.
Now in 2010s, women are welcome in every road race. Opportunities abound from the mile to the 100 miler where women and men can run side-by-side, with women competing for prizes and place among other women. Not a single road race in the United States is men-only. But numerous races across the United States do not permit men to run them. Despite the fact that we no longer need women-only races, they still exist and often come packaged with pink marketing gimmicks.
The original goal of women-only road races was to dissolve the stereotypes of women runners: that they were too frail for long distances and that their uteruses would probably fall out. Yet over the years, women-only races have lost sight of this original purpose and, even if unintentionally, began to foster the stereotype that women won’t run for the sake of running itself. Instead, they need the external motivators of bling, men in tuxedos waiting for them at the finish line, and champagne to compete in a running event.
And this, in my mind, is where women-only races have failed us as female runners.
The Trouble with Women-Only Races
This certainly isn’t personal. I am not condemning anyone for running women-only races. Nor am I even arguing that women-only races should not exist. I am merely inviting you to think with me about the way that women-only races are marketed and presented and to ponder what that means for our sport.
What troubles me the most about women-only races is the marketing. With a few exceptions, like the aforementioned Tufts 10k, the New York Mini (formerly the Crazylegs Mini Marathon), the Freihofer’s 5k, among others, most women-only races do not emphasize the sport-side of running, nor is athletic achievement the main motivation. Many women-only races advertise chocolate and champagne at the finish line, a party-like atmosphere, and everything pink. Empowerment, girls’ weekend, girl power, and bubbly are words frequently used in the marketing campaigns for these races, but those words are just pink frosting on the perpetuation of gender stereotypes.
The marketing, race day atmosphere, and post-race events overflow with girly cliches and stereotypes. Every single shade of pink obnoxiously colors the websites and race day swag. Diamond jewelry, champagne, and chocolate are handed out at the finish line by shirtless firefighters (men, presumably), as if women need it to motivate them to run a race. The men at the finish line assumes the notion that women compete, not for their own reasons, but for the approval and attention of men.
The Diva Half Marathon series gives out pink tutus to all of their registrants and boas and tiaras to don mid-course (can you imagine the chafing?). The stereotypes seem almost satirical, until you sadly realize they are not.
When you pause and think about it objectively, many of today’s women-only races seem to reject the equality and principles that Bobbi Gibb, Kathrine Switzer, and many other women runners fought for. The races perpetuate the separation of women from men when it comes to running and they promote the outdated idea that regular road races are too competitive for the female spirit. If you based feminism in running off of these races, you would think that all women only race for chocolate or wine.
Maybe there aren’t feather boas or tutus on the course to make me feel glamorous, but I don’t want to feel glamorous during a race. I want to grit it out, give my best for that day, and maybe run a PR. And from working as a coach with other runners and looking around at races, I know I’m not alone in this desire.
Finally, the issue of gender equality must be addressed. Quite frankly, if there were men-only races as there are women-only races, the upset would be remarkable. We can’t expect equality for women and not for men; such an expectation is not equality.
The Nike Women’s Marathon’s gimmick centers around male firefighters in tuxedos handing out necklaces to finishers. At the Women Rock races, shirtless men hand out post-race gifts to the female finishers. To me, that screams sexism and objectification. Could you imagine a race where women in slinky cocktail dresses handed out watches to men at the finish? Is this actually equality in the sport of running?
All right. Yes, there is another side to this.
Maybe Women-Only Races Aren’t So Bad
So what can be said in favor of women-only races?
First, while seasoned runners may not desire a non-competitive atmosphere, women new to running and signing up for their first race may find these events less intimidating. The sport of running still does have strides to make in becoming more welcoming to newer and slower runners.
Second, with our nation’s obesity epidemic, it makes sense to offer events that make running fun. Not everyone desires a competitive atmosphere; many people are attracted to the idea of running for fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, we should encourage running in any way possible!
Finally, women-only races, especially those that tout themselves as competitive races like Tufts, the NY Mini, and Freihofer’s, do offer women an opportunity to compete directly against women. This may be especially appealing for faster women who tend to compete against mostly men or end up running alone at most other races.
Whether there’s a place in the sport for women-only races is not a clear cut issue. Both sides of the argument have merit. I believe the takeaway from this is that we should think critically about how events and the running community foster certain stereotypes about women, and how to promote women’s running without perpetuating those stereotypes or excluding anyone from the sport.
So where do you land on women-only races? Do you love them, avoid them, or have a neutral opinion of them?