The Way We Talk About Women’s Safety While Running Needs to Change
The murder of Eliza Fletcher highlights the freedoms that women runners are asked to surrender in the name of safety. Why not hold society accountable for violence?
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
On Tuesday, September 6th, the body of 34-year-old Eliza Fletcher—a mom, kindergarten teacher, and avid runner—was found in an abandoned duplex in Memphis, Tennessee. She was an amazing human, and her death is a heart-breaking, infuriating tragedy.
As the editor of a running magazine, I hate that I have to write this article. Most of all, I hate it for Eliza and her family. I also hate it because of what it means for society and what it means for the running community. This really sucks, and I am writing through a lot of rage and a heavy heart.
God, I really hate talking about runner safety. Because a lot of times, more talk isn’t helpful. Press coverage and the social media vortex of responses haven’t helped. They often feed a narrative that engages in victim-blaming and risks making things even worse for women and for runners.
I hate talking about runners’ safety because it obscures the more mundane forms of violence that happen every day. Most violence is not committed by strangers, as in the case of Eliza Fletcher. Most women are harmed by their intimate partners, and women of color are the ones disproportionately harmed by partners and strangers alike.
The way we talk about incidents like this reveals a culture that blames women for men’s behavior and the violence men perpetrate against women. We have historically treated a lot of things that men do to women as a “women’s problem”, which women are to address by arming themselves, dressing a certain way, running at certain times, or some other action that is an implicit assumption that the violence could have been prevented by the victim.
I hate talking about safety because I know the people who most need to read this, aren’t going to read this. I hate talking about safety because it might reinforce the very narrative I want to upend: that all women are potential victims, and it’s our responsibility alone to prevent violence.
Female runners, and particularly runners from additionally marginalized communities that are affected by violence and harassment, are routinely told to modify their behaviors, and limit their freedom as though this violence is an unchangeable force, something you just have to bend to, like the weather. We can’t change the culture, the assumption goes, so we must change the women.
Is it really less absurd to imagine a world where instead of asking women to change, we held society accountable for the violence it permits? When our storytelling focuses too narrowly on the victims, “what she did to make this possible,” we write the perpetrator out of the story. The narratives may feign concern for the victim, but really they’re protecting the perpetrator. By refusing to look directly at the conditions that allow this to happen (a culture that devalues the lives of women and marginalized communities), we endorse it.
Our culture takes the behavioral modifications that women make every day for granted. We’ve been told not to wear our hair in ponytails (too grab-able), wear earphones (you need to be aware of your surroundings!), wear provocative clothing (midriff = permission), jog alone (asking for it), or in certain places or times of day (this is particularly grating when you consider how many women fit running around childcare obligations, which they additionally bear the brunt of, labor-wise). This unsubtle victim-blaming tries to absolve our culture of a collective wrong that is refusing to pinpoint the source of this violence: that some (#notallmen, yes I know) men do not see women as full, autonomous beings with rich inner lives, and that the taking of one such life, is in fact, the taking of a life.
Whenever I’m asked to speak on a panel about women’s safety (uncomfortably frequently. Pro tip: women would like to be on panels for things other than safety) I want to scream this shouldn’t be my problem to solve.
Once on a run, a car stopped and honked at me while I was running on the sidewalk. I had already flipped the driver off and yelled something that I can’t repeat here before realizing: it was my partner in the car. I am so accustomed to the low-grade degradation and harassment that accompanies being a female runner, that I defaulted into my go-to aggressive response before even checking to see if the interaction might be friendly.
I feel equal parts sad and guilty when I run by another woman on the road or trail, and she’s obviously startled. I feel even sadder when her fear fades into visible relief that it’s another woman. I wonder what it would be like to navigate the world without giving a single thought to taking safety precautions about where and when you run. I wonder what we could do with that collective brainpower, regained. This fear is a tax on our very being, and anyone who isn’t actively working to dismantle a culture that allows it is perpetuating that same violence.
I hate writing about safety because there are so many other things I would rather write about. I’d rather write about the environment, or the amazing running community, or my dog, or one million other things that I love. I wish I could write about any of those things today.
But I can’t. Today I need to write about safety. Because an amazing woman was murdered, a terrible tragedy in a string of terrible tragedies that stretch past the horizon. It sucks.
So yes, today I have to write about safety. I am writing with sadness. I am also writing with fury–fury for Eliza, fury for all women, fury for a society that tolerates violence both implicitly and explicitly. When I run, I am fundamentally less safe than my male running partners. Some percentage of my operating power at all times is going towards keeping myself safe on the run, and that power drain is compounded for women of color – whose bandwidth I would also love to see freed up to continue doing meaningful work that isn’t related to their safety, which should always be a given.
While I am writing with personal fury, violence against women is not a personal problem, and there is no personal solution. It deserves sweeping cultural change, policy work, and shifting of societal norms. Adidas has launched an educational program aimed at men to help address violence against female runners. Many athletes, like Jordan Daniel through her work at Rising Hearts, and Verna Volker through her work with Native Women Running, are providing vital education and resources for the running community around safety. While none of that is as easy as telling someone not to run at night, it will actually work. We all need a re-education about why this violence happens and what it will take to end it.
I hate writing about safety because this isn’t about safety. This is about violence. And a world that’s not ready to hold itself accountable for its actions.