The recent Women’s Right to Run 19K in Seneca Falls paid homage to the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution enfranchising women. That Amendment was ratified on what is referred to as “Equality Day” — Aug. 26, 1920.
To celebrate all of those who participated on May 7 in the inaugural 19K, I am profiling some of the amazing athletes who have been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, the birthplace of women’s rights: Wilma Rudolph, Kathrine Switzer, Althea Gibson, Gertrude Ederle and Babe Didrikson Zaharias.
Wilma Rudolph contracted polio as a child and her family was told that she would not walk. But with the determination and assistance of a huge family, she did walk. In fact, attending public high school after being home-schooled due to her delicate health, she became a runner! In 1956, at age 16, she qualified for her first Olympics where she won a bronze medal. In the 1960 games, she became the first American woman to win three gold medals during a single Olympic Games. The “fastest woman in the world” also became an inspiration to millions as her story was televised worldwide.
The special guest and spokesperson for the 19K, Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. She trained for the 1967 marathon and filled out the application and signed it the way she always did — as K.V. Switzer. Unaware that a woman had been admitted, race officials physically tried to remove her when she and her running colleagues passed the press stands during the race. The photo sequence of that attempt has become famous. Switzer successfully advocated for the marathon as an Olympic event for women — which occurred for the first time in 1984. Today, she remains an advocate for running for women around the world and has launched a clothing line using her Boston Marathon bib number — 261 Fearless.
A woman of many athletic firsts, Althea Gibson broke color barriers in tennis and golf. Receiving a tennis racquet at age 13, she won her first tournament at 14. The first African-American tennis player to compete at both the U.S. Nationals and Wimbledon, Gibson won the French Open in 1956 and both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon in 1957 as well as in 1958. She then turned to golf and became the first African-American woman on the women’s pro tour.
The first woman to swim across the English Channel, Gertrude Ederle accomplished that feat in 1926 after competing in the 1924 Olympics and winning gold and bronze medals. The record she set in swimming the Channel remained unbroken for 24 years. Later in life, she taught swimming at a school for the deaf — as she had experienced hearing problems since her youth and later became deaf herself.
An incredibly gifted athlete deemed Female Athlete of the Half Century in 1950, Babe Didrikson Zaharias excelled in every sport she tried. In high school, her best sport was basketball although she won Olympic medals in track and field at the 1932 Olympics. Once she turned her attention to golf, Babe had 35 career victories in golf including 10 majors of which three were U.S. Opens. She was the first American woman to win the British Ladies Amateur. Babe also was one of the founders of the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
Jill S. Tietjen is the former CEO of the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She spent her career in the electric utility industry and is currently an independent director on two corporate boards and is co-author of the best-selling and award-winning book “Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America.” She and her husband David live in Centennial, Colo.
I welcome you to explore the stories of more great women (womenofthehall.org). Support the Hall: Come tour the Seneca Knitting Mill as it is transformed into the Center for Great Women. Become a member of the Hall.