Women in Athletics and Social Change

I just wrapped up a whirlwind weekend celebrating my 5 year college reunion. I quickly mastered the art of describing the last five years of my life in under 30 seconds as I caught up with the many classmates I hadn’t seen since graduation in 2006. We were all assigned a dorm room for the weekend and my closest friends quickly formed into the posse we once were—sharing meals together, attending lectures, planning parties, and running around the beautiful lake that the campus is situated on. What a life we had! 

I also had the opportunity to meet with older alums since all classes that graduated in years ending in a 1 or 6 were represented at this reunion. I met one especially inspiring alum, Joan Lamb Ullyot, from the class of 1961 who I was introduced to by my former Wellesley cross country coach.

From left to right: My former XC teammate and friend, Kate. My former XC coach, John Babington (aka J-babs). Joan Lamb Ullyot. Me.

After Joan graduated from Wellesley she started medical school at Harvard and, as she put it, noticed that she was “starting to spread out” due to the long hours sitting in the library studying for medical exams. At that time women were not encouraged to participate in any form of athletics but Joan could tell that her body was suffering from her sedentary lifestyle. A classmate told her to run in place in her room to satisfy her urge to exercise, which she did initially, until finally she was fed up with being confined to her room while men were able to run outside. One morning she donned a baggy sweat suit and hat so no one would recognize her and went for a real run. After a few of these morning runs through the parks of Cambridge she realized that she loved the feeling she got from being active and outdoors. Joan not only went on to be a professional runner (she has run over 80 marathons) but she also was a leader in the women’s athletics movement. She published the first books about women’s running and helped get women’s running events added to the Olympics. I was surprised to learn that there were no women’s distance races in the Olympics prior to 1980 in part because Olympic officials thought that long-distance running was damaging to women’s health. As a Harvard-trained doctor Joan was the perfect advocate. In the early 80s the then president of Wellesley College asked Joan to make a sizable donation to the college.  Joan said she would write the check if the president established a women’s varsity cross country team. Thanks to Joan the team was established and during my college years I was able to experience the camaraderie of being on a team, the elation of setting a personal best, the discipline required to train day after day, and the fun of a muddy training run. 

I’ve spent thousands of hours playing both organized and unorganized sports; it’s hard for me to imagine that participating in these activities used to be taboo for women in our country. Hearing Joan’s story made me realize how much social change can happen in 50 years and it made me think about how my Stevens project—Shift—is truly about shifting social norms. If I’m lucky enough to attend my 50th college reunion, what will the American city look like by then? Will the number of super-highways cutting through our cities have doubled or will we have dense cities with bike boulevards, pedestrian-friendly commercial districts, green spaces, and effective public transportation? Will people still think it’s unusual to show up for a meeting or dinner party on a bike or will it be normal for an old lady to bike around Seattle?


1 thought on “Women in Athletics and Social Change

  1. In 50 years I’ll be 110 years old, and I definitely hope it will be normal for an old lady to bike around Seattle! How wonderful to finally meet Joan– the woman who made it possible for you and all the other women athletes to run cross-country during those great years at Wellesley!

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