When organized sports appeared on the American landscape in the late 1860s, nascent baseball and football struggled to find a fan base, and neither could compete with the professional endurance walkers.
Male pedestrians dominated the headlines and earned bigger paychecks, but a handful of women, called pedestriennes also garnered attention, and controversy.
Pedestriennes traveled the country engaging in walking exhibitions contests on makeshift tracks built in reconfigured theatres and opera houses. Frequently finishing in front of raucous crowds who packed these arenas, these women often earned more for one performance than most Americans took home in a year.
In January, 1879, the sport reached its apex. In Brooklyn, Brit “Madame” Ada Anderson walked a quarter mile every 15 minutes for a month, a feat that drew international acclaim and earned her a fortune.
Her performance ignited a frenzy of pedestrienne activity in New York, as hundreds of untrained hopefuls failed in highly publicized attempts to achieve pedestrienne greatness. The sport’s popularity in New York collapsed at the disastrous International Championship Six-day walk in Madison Square Garden. Negative publicity turned the public against the walkers, forcing the pedestrienne hub to move from New York to San Francisco.
For two more years, the pedestriennes dazzled the west coast with record-setting performances, but the sport fell due to corruption, increasing cries of brutality, infighting, and a “we’ve seen this before” mentality.
Although significant for only five years, the pedestriennes’ contributions continue and go beyond sport. Their challenging of conventional thought of women’s capabilities and success in a man’s world laid the groundwork for societal and athletic change well into the next century.