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What Do You Mean Women Can't?

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Many news reports have appeared about the fight women had to undertake so that women's ski jumping would become an event at the Winter Olympics; even having to file a lawsuit. Unfortunately, the history of women in sports and participating in athletics has been fraught with the refrain that women "can't" -- women can't undertake athletic pursuits as it would damage their bodies, women's can't climb mountains as they don't have the stamina, women can't run marathons as it would damage their reproductive systems. And, women can't ski jump. Of course, none of this is true and women athletes have truly come a long way.

Catharine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe (who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin) was a strong advocate of education for women and of physical education for women. She founded two schools and campaigned for a school curriculum that included calisthenics (as well as algebra, Latin, rhetoric, logic and philosophy). She believed that corsets, which were part of the fashion of the day, deformed women's bodies and made the type of exercise that she advocated virtually impossible. Beecher created drawings of appropriate exercises and wrote a textbook that described those exercises. Her 1857 book was titled Physiology and Calisthenics for Schools and Families.

Her calisthenics incorporated one set of exercises for schools and one for exercise halls. She even included light weights in those exercises. She intended calisthenics, structured around 26 lessons in physiology and two specific courses, to be just for women. She wrote:

When physical education takes the proper place in our schools, young girls will be trained in the class-rooms to move head, hands and arms gracefully; to sit, to stand, and to walk properly, and to pursue calisthenics exercises for physical development as a regular school duty as much as their studies.

Beecher was ahead of her time in her advocacy of physical education for women. She has been inducted into the Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame.

Annie Smith Peck's interest in athletics was triggered by her determination to outdo her brothers in sports when they would not let her play with them. Her health, in conjunction with her stamina and endurance, combined with her strong belief in equal rights for women, led to her success in mountain climbing. Her interest in mountain climbing began when she saw the Matterhorn while she was traveling from Germany to Greece. Her first important climb was Mount Shasta (in California -- 14,380 feet) in 1888. Peck gained fame and some measure of disdain when she climbed the Matterhorn in 1895. Her climbing clothes were atypical attire for women of the day -- knickerbockers, boots and woolen hose.

Peck continued to climb for many years. She was the first woman to climb Mount Coropuna (21,250 feet) in Peru (1911). She was an ardent suffragist and placed a "Votes for Women" pennant at its summit. Her last climb was at age 82. Peck was a pioneer in many respects, achieving a number of firsts for women in mountain climbing. She said, "I decided in my teens that I would do what one woman could do to show that women had as much brains as men and could do things as well if she gave them her undivided attention."

Kathrine Switzer climbed figurative mountains. She gained fame in 1967 when she registered to run the Boston Marathon as K. Switzer at a time when women were not allowed to run marathons. Although the race director endeavored to forcibly remove her, she was able to continue running and complete the entire marathon. The photographs that resulted (the incident occurred in front of the press stands) led to a revolution for women in running. Women were finally allowed to run in marathons in 1971. The next important step occurred in 1984 when the women's marathon became an official Olympic Games event.

Switzer believes that women everywhere in the world should be able to run. She has dedicated herself to creating equality in sports for women. She says, "You triumph over the adversity, that's what the marathon is all about and therefore you know that there isn't anything in life that you cannot triumph over after that." Switzer has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

These women are among the many athletes who demonstrated that women can and who are profiled in the book Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. We appreciate their pioneering efforts and are proud to stand on their shoulders.