Fifty years ago, Bobbi Gibb was a bandit, and now she’s a legend


In 1966, Bobbi Gibb became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon.  I can’t say officially, because she did this at a time when women were not permitted to run the Boston Marathon.  She had applied but she was told not only that women weren’t allowed, but that they weren’t “physiologically capable.” (LOL)

But she had trained hard and she still wanted to run, so instead of starting with all of the men, she hid in some bushes a couple of blocks away, then jumped into the race as the men ran past.  She ended up finishing the race she was told women were physiologically incapable of finishing in three hours and twenty-one minutes.

Fast forward fifty years. Gibb, now a 72-year-old neuroscience researcher and sculptor, is set to be the grand marshal for the 2016 Boston Marathon.  She’s featured on promotional materials.  ESPN is publishing stories about her. A campaign is in the works to put a sculpture of Gibb – created by Gibb herself, obvi – somewhere along the course.

You’d never know that Gibb’s 1966 Boston Marathon was once not only controversial but also completely unthinkable.  You’d never know the woman being lionized in promotional materials was once considered a deviant.

I love the Legend of Bobbi Gibb. It’s not just because the thought of this young woman, incensed at the insistence that women were too weak and frail to do what she was already doing all the time, said to hell with the rules and did what she wanted to do anyways, although obviously I love that a whole lot.  It’s also because her story shows that things can change, and for the better, even if it takes fifty years for it to happen.

There’s a lot that happens in the world of women’s sports that frustrates me: the objectification of female athletes, a lack of media coverage, sponsorships that are meted out not based on performance but on appearance, etc. etc. But every so often it’s a good idea to take a step back and to remember just how far things have come, and in such a short period of time too. I mean, it was in my own lifetime that women were not allowed to run the marathon in the Olympics, and now some of the most high-profile marathoners in the U.S. are women.  I am not that old, y’all!

Without that perspective, without the reminder that progress has happened and continues to happen, our current efforts can feel pointless, like we’re just thrashing away at immutable attitudes that haven’t changed and will never change.

But that’s not true, and it never has been true. We would do well to remember that, especially in those moments where we feel so frustrated by the pace of social change, which can seem glacial when we are living in those moments. It doesn’t mean we let up; it just means that we need to have faith in our collective ability to nudge things ever closer to that idealized vision of the world we hold in our hearts and minds.  We keep doing what we need to do to get there, and trust that eventually the rest of society will catch up, the way the rest of society eventually caught up to Bobbi Gibb.

It may take fifty years, but it will happen.  Just ask Bobbi Gibb.

2 responses to “Fifty years ago, Bobbi Gibb was a bandit, and now she’s a legend

  1. It really is extraordinary how far we’ve come in so short a time–I know I’m heartened every time I see more women in the weight area of the gyms I go to, kicking ass and taking names. And if one magazine has banned the phrase “bikini body” from its lexicon, hopefully others will follow suit soon, you know? I think if we all keep unapologetically doing what we do fitness-wise it will normalize it and hopefully encourage others to give it a shot, you know?

  2. Love this. I have my mom’s old ski patrol jacket that I wear regularly because I think it’s fun, and because I think it’s cool that my mom did that, and I get approached by people all the time about it. Obvious things like, “Are you on patrol?” or “Do you ski?” Every single person who approaches me is a man – old, young – and while part of that might be because I’m a woman, and the jacket gives men who may otherwise not approach me an easy conversation starter, I think it’s also because it tends to be a more male dominated sport/profession (I just looked it up, and apparently women make up 20% of patrol, and have for the last 20 years). Most of the men who approach me were, at one point, on ski patrol.
    One time, I felt a light tap on my arm, and it was a little girl, maybe 9 years old, riding the bus with her mom. She asked me if I was on patrol, and I smiled and told her, “No, but my mom was when she was in college. This was her jacket that she wore.” Her mom smiled at me and said, “She wants to be on ski patrol,” and I told her to keep skiing and practicing, and I’m sure she’ll be a great patrolwoman. The interaction clearly made her day and she seemed so excited and lit up. I still think about her and hope that she stays focused on her goal. It still makes me smile. When I wear that jacket now, I secretly hope that I’m making an impression [on behalf of my mom] on other little girls who may not approach me, but who are seeing it, and that it’s helping to normalize the idea of women in physical or athletic professions. 🙂

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