For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012.

I’ve recently been reading a lot about the sociology of sport and I found myself inspired by feminist resistance to exclusion from long distance running.  The first Olympic marathon was held in 1896.  It was open to men only and was won by a Greek named Spyridon Louis. Women weren’t to be counted out entirely, however. A woman named Melpomene snuck onto the marathon route. She finished an hour and a half behind Louis, but beat plenty of men who ran slower or dropped out.

Women snuck onto marathon courses from that point forward.  Resistance to their participation was strong and, I believe, reflects men’s often unconscious fear that women might in fact be their equals.  Why else would they so vociferously object to women’s participation?  If women are, indeed, so weak and inferior, what’s to fear from their running alongside men?

Illustrating what seems to be a degree of panic above and beyond an imperative to follow the rules, the two photos  below show the response to Syracuse University Katherine Switzer’s running the man-only Boston marathon in 1967 (Switzer registered for the marathon using her initials).  After two miles, race officials realized one of their runners was a girl.  Their response?  To physically remove her from the race. Luckily, some of her male Syracuse teammates body blocked their grab:

Why not let her run? The race was man-only, so her stats, whatever they may be, were invalid. Why take her out of the race by force?  For the same reason that women were excluded to begin with: their actual potential is not obviously inferior to men’s.  The only sex that is threatened by co-ed sports is the sex whose superiority is assumed.

Women were included in competitive marathoning from 1972 forward. The first Olympic women’s marathon was run in 1984.  Not so very long ago.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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