Today in Women’s Transportation History – 1879: Walking Into History

At a time when pedestrian races had grown in popularity across the United States, a number of women – widely known as “pedestriennes” – were establishing themselves as prominent and formidable competitors in the sport. One of the major pedestriennes of the era was May Marshall of Chicago. Her hard-fought victory over rival pedestrienne Bertha Von Hillern in a six-day competition in Chicago in 1876 helped ignite the momentum for the women’s walking movement. Marshall further distinguished herself that same year when she beat champion male speedwalker Peter Van Ness in a race at New York City’s Central Park Garden.

As of March 30, 1879, Marshall was approximately two-thirds of the way towards achieving another ambitious goal in her professional career as a pedestrienne: walking a total of 4,000 quarter miles (a quarter mile is the equivalent of 402.3 meters) in as many quarter hours during the course of a single event. Marshall, in her late twenties at the time, sought to reach this objective during the International Pedestrian Tournament in New York City.

The tournament, which specifically took place at Central Pedestrian Hall in the Brooklyn Skating Rink, began on March 3. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, in its subsequent coverage of “May Marshall, the wonderful lady pedestrienne,” highlighted how she was trying “to complete a feat never before attempted.” Two weeks after the start of the tournament, Marshall continued to stay strong and focused. “Miss May Marshall has shown no sign, thus far, of failing in her tremendous 4,000 quarter mile undertaking,” reported the March 17 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “She walks as steadily and with as vigorous and determined strides as when she started.”

Marshall finally stopped walking in the event on the evening of April 15, having logged a total of 4,125 quarter miles (1,031.25 miles or 1,659.64 kilometers) in as many quarter hours on the track since March 3. “There were a number of visitors at the hall and the plucky pedestrienne was loudly cheered on retiring,” recounted the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “Miss Marshall can justly lay claim to [being] the champion female walker of the country, and as a proof that it is not an idle boast on her part, she is ready at any time to meet any candidate for that honor either in a six days’ walk or less.”

Information on May Marshall and other leading 19th-century American pedestriennes is available at https://pedestriennes.com/.

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