Q&A with Gretta Cohn, executive producer of 30 for 30 podcast 'Six Who Sat'
At the 1972 New York City Marathon, when the gun fired to start the women's race, six female competitors sat down on the starting line in protest. While the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) allowed women to participate, they had to start their marathon 10 minutes before the men. So six women -- Lynn Blackstone, Jane Muhrcke, Liz Franceschini, Pat Barrett, Nina Kuscsik and Cathy Miller -- sat on the starting line for those 10 minutes to protest the unequal treatment.
The moment, which resulted in an iconic photo printed across four columns in the New York Times, ultimately changed the face of women's running forever.
The 30 for 30 podcast episode "Six Who Sat" tells the story of that protest and examines the subsequent era of change. espnW spoke with the executive producer of the podcast, Gretta Cohn, to discuss the events of 46 years ago and the cast of characters involved.
This conversation has been edited for length.
espnW: Were you aware of the 1972 protest when this assignment first came your way?
Gretta Cohn: No, I had no idea that there was a point when women were not permitted to run long distances in an organized way. It was shocking.
espnW: In the podcast, Kathrine Switzer (who became the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon in 1967) tells the story of going to a medical exam and having the male doctor, while smoking a cigarette, tell her that if she continued to run marathons, her uterus could fall out. What was your reaction to hearing that this was the medical 'wisdom' of just 50 years ago?
GC: First of all, that seems physically impossible, and so one wonders, where did this notion come from? A lot of this archival tape in our piece reinforces this idea that women are too delicate for endurance sports, or that women's bodies are not created for endurance sports. And most of the warnings that we found were about how [running] was going to impact your ability to bear children successfully. The whole production team was dumbfounded by this.
espnW: You spoke with Nina Kuscsik, who ran 2:56 to place second among women at the 1971 New York City Marathon. What was her story?
GC: We visited Nina on this cul-de-sac on Long Island where she's lived for a long time, and she talked about having her kids on the front lawn [in the 1970s]. She would sort of just run around the cul-de-sac again and again and again so she could keep her eyes on them but still get her run in.
All of the women told us how unusual it was to run in the '70s. People looked at runners as freaks. Nina told us a story about how she was wearing a red shirt and she went on a run, and it was raining, and she started to get trailed by a police car. The cops came up behind her and said, "Excuse me, ma'am, are you injured, are you bleeding, are you running from something?" And she was just on her run. It was a strange sight to see someone like Nina on the road just doing her thing.
espnW: What about Pat Barrett, the 17-year-old who sat for the protest, but didn't hold a sign?
GC: Pat had been a runner on her high school team, and like many of these women who got into sports in their high school years, there was not a girls' track team, so they would join the boys' team and run with the boys. Pat went to a Catholic school in New Jersey, and the nuns were very supportive of her running, and everyone encouraged her to come up to New York for this 1972 marathon. But she was not prepared for this -- she had no idea the protest was happening. She was terrified that the AAU would find out and ban her from entering any subsequent races.
espnW: Do you think Barrett felt any regret, years later, that she was the only protester not holding a sign?
GC: She told us that she was familiar with Nina and had a lot of respect for her. She was afraid to hold the sign because she thought it might mark her for [banishment by] the AAU, but she trusted Nina so much that she went along with the sit-down because she didn't think Nina would lead her astray.
espnW: What was Jane Muhrcke like?
GC: Jane is amazing. She and her husband, Gary Muhrcke, are pioneers of the sports apparel industry. [In the 1970s] runners were wearing cotton shorts, and they would run 26 miles, and at the end their thighs would be bleeding because of the chafing. So Jane and Gary started by selling athletic wear out of their van at races. There weren't running shoes manufactured specifically for women, so women were purchasing men's shoes in a small size and doing their best with that.
There was a swimsuit company called Dolphin, and one month a year Dolphin would shift their assembly line to make running shorts instead of swimsuits using what we now understand as technical apparel. During that one month, Jane and Gary would buy up as much as they could, and that would be their opportunity to get technical apparel to sell.
espnW: Fred Lebow, the founder of the New York City Marathon, promoted women's running and women's equality, but used blatantly sexist stunts -- like inviting Playboy bunnies to races -- to do so. What was your reaction to the incongruity of that?
GC: I think Kathrine Switzer put it best when she said that Fred was a huge male chauvinist who was a huge supporter of women. And both Kathrine and Nina told us how Fred constantly was calling them to run ideas by them, to get their feedback on things, to talk about how they were going to promote the marathon. So they were a team. And I think Nina and Kathrine just tolerated something like the Playboy bunnies because it was hopefully going to bring attention to their cause.
espnW: Do you think the women who participated in the sit-down look back on the events of that day fondly?
GC: Something that didn't make it into the podcast was that many of the women recall seeing [the U.S.'s] Frank Shorter win the marathon at the 1972 Olympics and how that played a role in their motivation for equality for women in long-distance running. I think there is a little bit of a melancholy aspect to this for someone like Nina Kuscsik, for whom the opportunity wasn't there yet.
It was really important to these women not only able to run the New York City Marathon, but also to get access to the Olympics. They talked to us about watching Shorter win, and being so excited that an American had won, and then the next thought is, why can't I participate in this as well?
espnW: Did you get the sense that the sit-down was a serious and deliberate protest, designed to evoke change, or more of a fun stunt?
GC: This is tough, because we're asking people to remember an event that happened in their lives in 1972, and some of the major players are no longer here to tell us about their roles. I'm really hesitant to pass my judgment on something that I wasn't in the room for. But it created a profound impact, and we know that because the AAU rules changed.
Nina was for sure an activist. This was the culmination of a lot of work and agitation on her part to change the rules. She was tireless, she went to countless meetings, she wrote treatises and statements. We were at her house and saw her archives, and this was something that was incredibly important to her. It was a passion and it was also a mission.
Jane, Lynn [Blackstone], Liz [Franceschini], Pat... they were not activists like Nina was, but it was very important to them that women be viewed equally. They weren't approaching it from an activist place, but by their actions they were participating in activism. At that time, the burgeoning feminist movement was all new, and taking on this kind of protest was still a thoroughly new idea, and so they very much were passionate about supporting this fight and being a part of it and sitting down on the starting line.