Last night, we celebrated the first night of Passover at my parents’ house with a couple family friends. My dad led the seder, and decided to focus on a part of the story rarely discussed in the traditional service: the role of women in the Jewish liberation from Egypt (and you wonder where I get my progressive zeal).
A few weeks ago, he asked all of us to prepare for the evening by bringing a story of a heroic woman in our own lives, someone who’s inspired us.
We went around the table. Joe talked about his 92-year-old aunt, still alive and vibrant as ever, who in her heyday worked as a union organizer. Caren opened with a tribute to Tina Fey before reading a poem she wrote about the mothers of children in the military. Brent shared a Utah Phillips/Ani Di Franco song about Mother Jones. My sister read a Florence Nightingale quote, my mom talked about her connection to Marie Curie, and my dad reminisced about his Aunt Gertrude, whose famed matzo balls were surpassed only by her commitment to making the world a better place.
When my dad first presented us with his plans for the seder, I was stumped. There are a lot of people that inspire me, and many of them are women, but how did I want to approach it? What did I want to convey with my selection? Should she be a family member, a historical figure, a friend? Should she be an activist, a mother, a storyteller?
And then it came to me.
I have long identified as a member of a progressive community. I use the word ‘activist’ selectively, and don’t always like the connotations that come with it, but I certainly think of myself as an active agent for change in the world.
And at the same time, for much of my life, I’ve identified as an athlete. I was a competitive swimmer for more than a dozen years, often logging upwards of thirty hours a week at the pool. And two torn rotators cuffs and two arthroscopic surgeries later, when I decided that my body had had enough of the water, I turned to the roads and the trails, trading in my swimmer’s shoulders for my runner’s calves (and becoming just as self-conscious of the latter as I’d been of the former). I may not see myself as an athlete now the same way that I did in high school, but it’s still pretty integral to who I am.
In my head, these two worlds that I have inhabited – of athlete and change agent – have often felt in tension with each other. It’s not that I see an inherent conflict between them, but it often feels like the culture ascribed to one doesn’t blend seamlessly into the culture of the other.
So, for my dad’s Passover seder, I decided to share a story of one woman who’d rather inadvertently bridged this divide, by becoming the first registered woman to run the Boston Marathon (I say ‘first registered woman’ because the year before, Bobbie Gibb entered the race as a bandit to be the first woman to complete the race).
Katherine Switzer didn’t reach the starting line of the 1967 race as an activist; she was simply a 20-year-old college runner who wanted to prove to herself that she could run 26.2 miles. But over the course of the four and a half-ish hours that it took her to complete the course, she found herself transformed. She was berated and humiliated. She was attacked by a race official who tried to pull her number off her chest.
Switzer said afterward that the experience radicalized her. “I thought other women weren’t interested in sports and I thought they didn’t get it,” she recalled in a 2002 interview. “It wasn’t until after Jock tried to tackle me that I realized the reason other women weren’t there is that they hadn’t had the same opportunities that I’d had or the encouragement from their family, dad or coach.”
She would go on to forge a career, creating programs to provide athletic opportunities for women around the world.
In bringing Switzer’s story to the Passover table, I hoped to share with my family and friends a person who’d managed to bridge these two seemingly conflicting worlds. And perhaps more important, I hoped to remind myself that maybe they weren’t so conflicting after all.