Remembering Women's Dipsea Hike Pioneer Edith Hickman

1918 Women's Dipsea Hike winner Edith Hickman

Edith Hickman's daughter, Barbara “Bobby” Van Meurs, and granddaughter, Arianna

To look forward to the 100th anniversary celebration of the Women’s Dipsea Hike on April 21 in the new year, Barbara “Bobby” Van Meurs and her daughter, Arianna, recently were delighted and enlightened to look back through scrapbooks created and stories told to the time when their mother/grandmother, Edith Hickman, was the first champion of the hike and a lot more.

“She was a real pioneer,” Bobby says.

Not a pioneer in the sense of Edith’s immigrant family who traveled from Pennsylvania to California by wagon train in the early 1800s. Edith was pioneer for women’s rights and jumped at the opportunity to participate in a trailblazing women’s hike at a time when the Dipsea Race wouldn’t allow women to run. This revolutionary sporting event for women, mind you, was almost 50 years before Katherine Switzer was labeled a pioneer as the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon.

“My mother,” Bobby says, “was a woman who was ahead of her time.”

Bobby realizes that as she and her daughter sat in the kitchen of Bobby’s hillside home overlooking Mount Tamalpais. Together they thumbed through stacks of pages of black-and-white photos revealing how colorful and amazing a woman Edith Hickman really was. She was a “tomboy,” a nickname given to females who favored sports predominantly associated with males. She loved to run, and fish, and swim. She grew up swimming off Baker Beach before school each day, arriving to class with wet hair. She was so prolific at the sport that she once finished second in a swim race under the Golden Gate Bridge before the bridge was built.

“I remember her telling me if she came back in another life, she would be a sea lion,” Bobby says. “She liked the way they moved in the water.”

Edith had an undeniable and determined spirit about her. She was an experienced sailor and avid photographer. She herded cattle on horseback, and was an accomplished fisherman who often, while on yearly visits to Hawaii, caught moray eels then skinned and ate them, claiming they tasted like chicken.

And Edith loved to hike. She and her husband, Allan Kerr Hulme, would take the ferry from San Francisco to Marin County on weekends, catch the train to Mill Valley then hop onto the Dipsea trail. Edith became so familiar with the historic path that it became her proving grounds. Defeating the notion in that era that women were not fit enough to compete in a long distance sporting event, Edith, enlisting the expertise of her swimming coach and trainer Eddie Stout of the Olympic Club, was the first to reach the top of the Dipsea stairs. She easily outpaced 306 other entrants with a recorded time of one hour, 18 minutes, and 48 seconds to win the inaugural Women’s Dipsea Hike in 1918 – the first ever cross country hike in the United States organized for women as its exclusive participants.

History was made and barriers were broken.

According to Barry Spitz’s book Dipsea: The Greatest Race, the women’s race was called a “hike” to escape an AAU ban of women competing in long distance races. To this, Edith essentially told the AAU to take a hike, or words to that effect.

“I hope there are more hikes for girls and women,” Edith wrote in a San Francisco Call and Post newspaper account in 1918. “If there are, I feel certain that we will develop some champion who will give any of the men champions a tussle in any kind of walking.”

The victory in the first-ever Women’s Dipsea Hike and subsequent competitions brought fame and notoriety to Edith. However, her husband, Allan Kerr Hulme wasn’t entirely comfortable with the press attention about all the trophies his wife won. Edith patriotically – and perhaps at Allan’s urging -- donated her gold and silver trophies to a scrap metal drive to help the U.S. effort in World War II. One of those trophies appears in a framed photo of Edith in hiking garb that Bobby maintains as a treasured keepsake amongst her mother’s memorabilia.

“My grandfather was a wonderful man, but he always wanted the attention to be focused on him,” Arianna says, smiling. “My grandmother was quiet and humble by comparison, but also incredibly independent and strong. She was happy to let him have the attention.”

Unfortunately, though it had more entrants than the men’s Dipsea Race at the time, the Women’s Dipsea Hike was not contested after 1922, bowing to outside pressures. Churches believed women competing in long distance races was immoral and doctors believed the races were damaging the women’s reproductive systems. Women competing in foot races faced an uphill climb greater than the Women’s Dipsea Hike.

The Dipsea Race did not have a woman competitor until 1950 and it wasn’t until 1971 that women were allowed to officially enter and compete against men in the Dipsea. Two years later, at the age of 10, Mary Etta Boitano, an outstanding long distance runner, became the first female to win the Dipsea Race.

She championed a cause that started 53 years earlier when Edith Hickman first ran for equal rights. Amazingly healthy and humble, Edith lived to the age of 82, yet she seldom boasted or spoke about her feats in the Women’s Dipsea Hike.

“For me the interesting thing about my grandmother is she rarely talked about herself,” Arianna says. “She was a doer. She would come up to the house several times a week and go swimming in our pool. While my sisters, brother, and I often hiked the Dipsea trail with our grandmother, I don’t recall her talking about winning the Women’s Dipsea Hike. I learned that later.”

Mostly from Bobby, who has become a champion, if you will, for Edith. Arianna’s mother has fond recollections of her mother’s fascination of the great outdoors. Bobby recalls hiking on the Dipsea trail with Edith and having her father carrying her when she tired.

Though admittedly a very private person, Bobby was more than happy to pass on her memories of her mom to her own children and anyone else who was interested in Edith’s extraordinary life.

“Everybody who knows me knows that whenever I meet people I always seem to get around to talking about my mother. I really do,” Bobby said. “I am so proud of her.”

With great reason. Edith Hickman rose to be the first champion of a hike that championed a cause for women that has endured for a century. She was first in line to defend the value and validity of the Women’s Dipsea Hike.

“It’s a very interesting time now for women, coming off the heels of a presidential election that has triggered a new cycle of women’s awareness and demand for equality,” says Arianna, who intends to participate with her sister, Krisa, to honor their grandmother on April 21, 2018.

“What I like about my grandmother is the authenticity with which she did the Women’s Dipsea Hike a hundred years ago. It wasn’t like she was trying to be a somebody. She was just being herself.”

A pioneer for women.