The first woman was officially invisible. In 1966, Roberta Gibb hid in the underbrush a couple of hundred yards past the Hopkinton start because the Boston Marathon was strictly a stag affair and she feared she might be kicked to the curb. “Is that a girl?’’ the trailing males wondered after Gibb freed an abundance of blond hair from beneath her sweatshirt hood. “I smiled and turned around and said, ‘Yeah,’ ’’ Gibb recalled four decades later.
On Monday, there’ll be 11,315 women in the race — more than 20 times the total number of men who took the line in Hopkinton when Gibb jumped in — and almost all of them will finish, with the fastest winning at least $150,000. What Gibb wanted to prove that day was that women could indeed go the distance, even if they weren’t welcome in Boston for another six years or in the Olympics until 1984.
When race gatekeeper Jock Semple shouldered Kathrine Switzer out of the 1967 race and tried to rip off the number that had been assigned to “K.V. Switzer,’’ whom the BAA had assumed was male, it brought the gender issue global. But it wasn’t until 1972 that Nina Kuscsik won the first official women’s race here and the entries, spurred by the running boom, soared.
The numbers went from 78 in 1976 to 527 in 1979 to 867 in 1982. A year later Joan Benoit set a stunning world record of 2 hours, 22 minutes and 43 seconds, passing hundreds of men along the way.
In 1984, she won the gold medal in the inaugural Olympic marathon in Los Angeles before a planetary TV audience. Two years later, women were running for prize money in Boston and the field went global.
Since then runners from Norway, Portugal, Poland, Russia, Germany, Ethiopia, and Kenya have won the world’s most fabled road race and the women have had a separate race with a separate start since 2004. No more hiding in the bushes. In Boston, the women now lead the way.