Racing to Be Fearless on International Women’s Day

Five years ago this spring—April 12, 2017—I defended my doctoral dissertation. It feels like a lifetime ago.

March 3, 2022

Five years ago this spring—on April 12, 2017—I defended my doctoral dissertation, which feels like a lifetime ago. Since then, I’ve started a new job, lived through the ongoing hellscape of the pandemic, given birth to my daughter and, as of March 8, 2022, published my first book.

Friends have asked me the significance of my publication date—March 8, which is International Women’s Day. I intentionally chose this day, as both my professional and personal writing has largely focused on the issue of gendered speech.

As a doctoral student writing about the manufactured voice of the Virgin Mary in medieval sources, I was fascinated to examine the power of one woman’s voice, especially in a world that viewed women’s speech with a fair amount of skepticism. The irony wasn’t lost on me that I was writing in an age where women are repeatedly shushed or cut off when speaking, or when they dare to speak out, they’re decried as “bossy,” “shrill” and “ambitious.” I wrote the majority of my dissertation in 2016, and although my research on the suppression of women’s voices was confined to the Middle Ages, watching Donald Trump leer and stomp around the debate stage while Hillary Clinton spoke, I felt that the topic of silencing women had particular resonance through the present day.

In an academic field that is largely male-dominated, my entire dissertation committee was comprised of women, something that was happily acknowledged during my dissertation defense. I had spent much of my graduate career trying to prove to both others and myself that I deserved a seat at the table, and on my defense day, I knew with certainty that I had finally found my own voice. I had devoted years of my life to writing about women’s agency and power, and because these women empowered me, I was able to grow and develop as an historian.

My new book, It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint: My Road to the Marathon and Ph.D., is about finding my voice and how it was amplified by key supporters, many of whom were women. I chose International Women’s Day for its release because I wanted to celebrate the women who helped to break down the barriers that allowed me to reach this point today, both in my professional life and in my favorite hobby—distance running.

For much of the 20th century, women who exercised were told that they wouldn’t be able to bear children, that they’d grow a mustache and they’d never be able to attract a husband. Given the prevalence of women in road racing today, many are surprised to learn that until 1972, the much-heralded Boston Marathon banned women from participating. When she ran the Boston Marathon in 1967, Kathrine Switzer, running among a group of men, was nearly forcibly removed from the race by an official named Jock Semple, who was enraged to discover a woman was running “his” race. Despite the fact that Semple nearly tackled Switzer, Switzer went on to finish and has spent her life championing women’s athletics, including through her nonprofit, Fearless 261, which seeks to encourage and unite women through running. Among other achievements, Switzer helped to get the women’s marathon added to the 1984 Olympics. Globally, women now make up 50.24 percent of runners, and each year over nine million American women participate in some form of road race.

I can’t imagine my life without running: it has helped me to find some semblance of balance in a hectic world; it’s instilled confidence in me and has challenged me to be persistent in achieving excellence. It’s also made me a better mother, wife, friend—you name it. I’m always a better member of society after a run. Had women like Kathrine Switzer not broken down that barrier, I’m not certain if I ever would’ve had the gumption to chase down my goals of earning a Ph.D. and writing a book.

I’m grateful to the women like Kathrine Switzer and my professors, all of whom taught me by example to be fearless. Celebrating International Women’s Day with you is more than a privilege—it’s a gift.

Vanessa Corcoran is an advising dean and adjunct professor of history at Georgetown University. Her memoir, It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint: My Road to the Marathon and Ph.D., will be published on March 8, 2022 (via Amazon). She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Pat, and their daughter, Lucy. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @VRCinDC.


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