The forgotten history of women’s running

In some ways the Victorian age was a golden one for running. Track and field athletics as we know it was born, accurate records started being kept and, towards the end of the period, the first modern Olympic Games were held. It was a time when running was set on course to become the sport we know and love today. However, the same period looks quite different when viewed from the perspective of women’s running. In fact, it could easily be viewed as a big step backwards.

Victorian women were expected to be ornaments, not athletes.

During the Victorian era women – especially of the privileged classes – were increasingly seen as little more than ornaments, far too frail and delicate for anything more than the lightest of exercise. The exertions of running were not only seen as ‘unladylike’ and demeaning, but also potentially disastrous for a woman’s health and fertility. As a result women were excluded from official competition for more than fifty years.

These attitudes lingered on well into the twentieth century. Even after women’s running was finally introduced into the Olympics in 1928 the sight of exhausted women crossing the line in the 800m caused such an outcry that the event didn’t return until 1960. Unbelievably in the light of performances such as those by Tirunesh Dibaba and Paula Radcliffe, it was not until 2008 that the women’s and men’s track programmes finally reached parity with the inclusion of the women’s 3,000m steeple chase.

Running before the Victorians

Today at last, women’s running has recovered from its collision with Victorian values and is flourishing. But this isn’t the first time in history women have had opportunities to win fame and fortune as athletes. Before the Victorians spoiled the party women could compete and even make good money running everything from short sprints to gruelling ultra-distances.

The mainstay of competitive running from at least the sixteenth century in England was the tradition of rural sports days. These were multi-sport events attached to religious festivals, market days or village feasts, and included running races in which women could compete for prizes. Often, the prize was an item of clothing such as a new dress or smock but money was offered for some races too. Contestants were usually young and unmarried women, but there were occasionally age group races that included a veteran’s category for over 35s.

Running up the profits

At least 20 of these races were held each year in the country of Kent alone during the eighteenth century. They included the famous ‘Running Lands Race’, qualification for which required victory in earlier heats. It was a tough race to win, but worth the effort, as the winning woman could pocket the equivalent of just under £1,500 in modern money. It would have been a huge sum for a peasant girl at the time.

Successful women would often be barred from competing at the same race twice, so would trek from village to village in search of new races and more prizes. There’s no doubt that the fastest women would have been able to make a very decent income and earn a great deal of local prestige this way.

Of course it wasn’t all glamour and glory. Running in those days hadn’t been tamed by codes of rules and sanitised by notions of ‘fair play’. So races could involve tripping and pulling at clothing to slow a rival, and of course the women had to endure the leering and jeering of ranks of inebriated male spectators.

Most of these races were probably long sprints, but by the late eighteenth century the real money in women’s running lay in ultra-distance. In an upcoming post we’ll take a look at some of the forgotten athletes who made a name for themselves two hundred years ago in extreme endurance challenges – many of which would make most modern runners wince.

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