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Gender panic on Heartbreak Hill

At the Boston Marathon in 1967, the patriarchy won the battle. In 1972, it lost the war.

A Boston Herald-Traveler article about 14-year-old Rocky Chamberlain, who ran in the 1967 Boston Marathon and whose "Beatle-type" hair style caused some to think he was the third girl running in that year's race.Boston Herald-Traveler Photo Morgue/Boston Public Library

The late 1960s and early 1970s were tough times for institutions. Organizations that had once seemed to be inalterable parts of American life faced growing skepticism and even threats of abolition. Bedrock establishments and systems like the US military and corporate capitalism faced unprecedented criticism and resistance based on growing societal concern for civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War.

Even athletic institutions saw their foundations under attack. In 1966, the beloved Boston Athletic Association Marathon faced an insidious threat targeting its very heart and soul: women. Not only had a female runner, Bobbi Gibb, infiltrated the race, she had — gasp! — run the whole thing.

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Even more dangerous provocations were in store for the 1967 Marathon. A woman named Kathrine Switzer entered the race using her initials to disguise her inappropriate gender, and 14-year-old Rocky Chamberlain, with what the press later called a “Beatle-type hair style,” caused widespread gender panic and a wave of pearl-clutching.

Rocky Chamberlain running in the 1967 Boston Marathon.Boston Herald-Traveler Photo Morgue/Boston Public Library

Luckily, a champion emerged to keep the running of long distances a manly affair.

Jock Semple, a race official and former marathoner, was not fooled by Switzer’s baggy attire. Indignant, he attempted to physically remove her from the course. Semple was unsuccessful in his attempt to — ahem — protect the right of men to run unencumbered by female disturbance. Switzer completed the course.

Jock Semple tries to pull Kathy Switzer off course at the 1967 Boston Marathon.Boston Herald-Traveler Photo Morgue/Boston Public Library

Although Switzer became the second known woman to finish the Marathon, Semple’s efforts helped retain the status quo: The BAA continued to ban women from officially running until 1972, when the group capitulated and sanctioned women as participants in that year’s race, with runner Nina Kuscsik openly crowned with victor’s laurels. Jock Semple, defender of the men-only race, later apologized to Switzer for his actions. The two reportedly became friends in later years.

Olavi Suomalainen, left, and Nina Kuscsik, winners of the 1972 Boston Marathon.Boston Herald-Traveler Photo Morgue/Boston Public Library

A word about the images and captions above: The Boston Herald-Traveler Photo Morgue, now held by the Boston Public Library, is a rich resource of the pictorial history of Boston. Not only do the images capture moments in time, but the original captions pasted on the backs of the photographs also tell us about the newspaper and its readers — the stories it chose to cover and the way those stories were covered reveal the preoccupations, beliefs, and biases of the era.

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Aaron Schmidt is curator of photography at the Boston Public Library.