The Surprising History of Women and Jogging

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That jogging had to be “invented” sounds like crazy talk.

Given the strobe lights and hefty price tags characterizing many of today’s sweaty trends, hitting the road on your own two feet can feel like the most intuitive and equal-opportunity way to work up a sweat.

Yet recreational running did become a thing—and a very big one—at a particular point in time: the 1970s.

For women, though, the road was bumpy. In 1967, Kathrine Switzer was famously chased off the Boston Marathon course. And the first women-only road race, held in Central Park in 1972, was considered by many observers a “curiosity.” (Called the Crazylegs Mini Marathon, it was sponsored by a shave gel—the “mini” referred to skirts.)

But running's popularity grew, thanks in part to women like Wilma Rudolph, who became a national sensation by winning three gold medals for the U.S. at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.


The first recreational runners

fitness_history_jogging_bookThe joys of jogging were first sung in response to a national panic about men’s declining health, as a result of suburbanization (more car/train commuting, less walking) and the expansion of the white-collar economy (more desk work, less manual labor).

As heart attacks skyrocketed, President-elect John F. Kennedy warned in 1960 that Americans were becoming “soft” both physically and intellectually. How to fix such flabbiness? Jogging.

Middle- and upper-class women were similarly exercise-deprived, thanks to conveniences like dishwashers and washing machines (#richpeopleproblems, mid-century edition), but the "ladylike" ideal of the day didn't include such a sweaty and solitary habit. Slenderizing salons were more in tune with the times.

So what launched the nationwide jogging craze? The 1966 book Joggingwritten by Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman and cardiologist W.E. Harris. The slim volume sold over a million copies, championing advice that now sounds totally obvious: “It’s free. It’s fun. It’s easy. It can be done alone or in groups.”

"Exercise for the ladies"

Jogging—along with new research revealing the health benefits of “cardio,” then called “aerobics” (but not what you’re thinking!)—blew up the popular image of exercise beyond beefy dudes pumping iron.

In sections like “Especially for the Ladies,” it enumerated the “tummy-flattening” and “ankle-trimming” benefits of running for the woman who traded her “high heels” for running-friendly attire like a leotard and loose skirt, should a proper jogging suit be unavailable.

(That’s right, in 1966 the sport was so new that the Nike co-founder didn’t even push product—one section is titled “No Expensive Clothes” and another features a runner sporting Chuck Taylors!)

nike adShoes make the woman...runner

Speaking of shoes, it was the launch of Nike Women in 1978 (the same year widely shared photos of President Jimmy Carter jogging hit newspapers) that helped establish the wild idea that running was absolutely appropriate for women, and not just to lose weight.

The campaign was hardly new in peddling fashion to women, but it capitalized on major transformations afoot (!) in attitudes about women and athleticism, deliberately echoing the language of feminists at the time.

One shoe was called “The Liberator,” and another ad announced, “There is nothing more powerful than a shoe whose time has come." Tag lines explained the reality that “there is no gentler sex,” now that “the idea of the woman athlete” had arrived.

Yet serious enthusiasm for women’s running grew, inspiring new, diverse, role models in the 1980s and '90s: marathoner Joan Benoit Samuelson and track-and-field star Jackie Joyner-Kersee achieved household-name status and big-name endorsements unimaginable a decade earlier.

Today, running women are everywhere (who run the world?). Comprising nearly 60 percent of finishers in all race events, women have been leaders in running for charity, often participating in and organizing events around traditional “women’s issues” such as child welfare—the first was 1970’s WalkAmerica (which became the Walk For Babies)—or breast cancer.

Women-only races defined by an inclusive, you-go-girl vibe abound, while others boast perks like tuxedo-clad men handing out Tiffany & Co. charm “medals” or post-race chocolate fondue fountains.

And if the spirit doesn’t (literally) move you, you can join the running sisterhood virtually, through ultramarathoning "it girl" Robin Arzon’s sleek Instagram or the blogs of women who put running front and center in their journeys toward living well … and changing the world.

Catch up on your fitness history
Sex and yoga—a controversial connection that continues today
’80s aerobics goddesses: The women who launched a fitness era
Slenderizing salons, reducing machines, and other hot fitness crazes of 75 years ago

(Photos: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection- NYPL Digital; ads for Nike)

Tags: Running
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