After Losing to Male Athletes, College Runner Fights for Fairness in Women’s Sports

Mary Kate Marshall fell in love with track and cross-country in high school.

Running “gives me so much confidence,” Marshall said. Now an athlete at Idaho State University, Marshall is fighting for Idaho’s Fairness in Women’s Sports Act—and for every woman’s and girl’s right to compete on a level playing field.

The Fairness in Women’s Sports Act prohibits biological men who “identify” as women from competing in women’s sports. Idaho Gov. Brad Little signed the legislation in March 2020, but the bill was quickly challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union. Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal nonprofit, represents Marshall and fellow Idaho State University track athlete Madison Kenyon in their efforts to reinstate the act and protect women’s sports.

Marshall and Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Christiana Holcomb join the “Problematic Women” podcast to explain the significance of the court battle for Idaho and for women’s sports across the nation.

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Also on today’s show, Melanie Israel, a policy analyst with the DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation, explains what you need to know about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear arguments in a case that could upend the abortion precedent set by Roe v. Wade. And as always, we’ll be crowning our “Problematic Woman of the Week.”

Virginia Allen: I am so pleased to be joined by Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Christiana Holcomb and Idaho State University student athlete Mary Kate Marshall. Thank you both so much for being here.

Christiana Holcomb: Thank you for having us.

Mary Kate Marshall: Thank you for having us.

Allen: So, a couple of weeks ago, we shared a little bit with our listeners about the situation that’s going on in Idaho regarding the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act. But, Christiana, I want to ask you to take us back to last year when Idaho Gov. Brad Little signed the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act into law. Could you just explain what exactly the purpose of this legislation is?

 Absolutely. Well, across the country, we’re seeing state athletic associations and lawmakers pass policies that allow biological males to come in and to dominate the girls’ category. One prominent example, of course, is what we’ve seen in Connecticut, and Alliance Defending Freedom is representing female athletes there, but also in the state of Idaho, where Mary Kate is from, a male athlete from the University of Montana dominated the female category. [He had] previously competed as a male, and in fact, set times that would’ve absolutely crushed the NCAA women’s record in those categories at that time.

So, Idaho looked at this, [and] lawmakers said that we don’t want to see girls in our state lose out on podium spots and advancement opportunities, championship titles, scholarship opportunities due to males competing in the girls’ category. So, they introduced the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act that was later signed by the governor, and just shortly thereafter challenged by the ACLU.

Allen: And why did the ACLU challenge this legislation?

 Well, the ACLU believes that biological males who “identify” as female ought to have the right to compete in the girls’ category. And that flies in the face of commonsense, and frankly, nearly 50 years of law and policy in our country, where we’ve set aside the girls’ category for a reason. And that’s because we recognize there are inherent physical differences that give biological males an inherent athletic advantage over female athletes.

In fact, the studies show that males have on average a 10% to 50% performance advantage over comparably fit and trained female athletes. And so, if we want a future where girls like Mary Kate can be on the podium and can get the recognition that her hard work deserves, then we have to protect the integrity of women’s sports.

Allen: Absolutely. Mary Kate, this act, as Christiana has explained, it personally affects you. You are a student at Idaho State University, and I want to get into a little bit about why you signed onto this lawsuit in just a few minutes. But first, I would love to ask you a little bit about your experience running track. What races do you run?

 Yeah, my main event is 800 [meters], but I also do the 400 and the 1500, and mile indoors.

Allen: Those are hard races. I used to run as well, and I was much more of a short-distance runner. I always feel like the 400 was a tease. It’s, like, still a sprint, but not really. It’s a grueling race. What first got you into track?

 Well, I actually started running in eighth grade. I did track. And then into high school, I started doing cross-country and track, and that’s just when I fell in love with running and knew I wanted to do it in college, too.

Allen: So, what for you is the most rewarding part of running?

 Definitely just the feeling after I’m done running, and just, I like to call it a runner’s high. It’s just like I feel like I can keep going forever, and I just feel so good about myself and just it gives me so much confidence.

Allen: Oh, I love that. So, let’s talk a little bit about the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act and how it impacts you. As Christiana explained, the act is just intended to protect women’s sports and opportunities for women, and ensured that only women and girls can actually compete in women’s sports.

But when the governor signed the law in Idaho, it didn’t even have a chance to go into effect before the ACLU challenged it. Mary Kate, have you ever had to compete against a biological male in a track event?

 Yeah, actually my first collegiate cross-country race, I competed against a biological male. And going into it, I was already pretty nervous—my first college cross-country race, and this just made me so much more nervous. And after the race, I got beat by this athlete, and so did all of my other teammates. And it was just very disheartening to see one of our first races of the season and already we’re having to run against a biological male.

Allen: So, when you lined up, did you know that you were running against a biological male, or was it not until after the race that you found out? 

 Yeah, we actually found out a couple of weeks before our season that we were going to be competing against a biological male.

Allen: So, what was running through your head leading up to that race?

 I really didn’t know what to expect. I just know that males are much faster than females. So, how is this going to be fair? But I wanted to stay open-minded and see what’s going to happen, because we haven’t seen this before. And after the race, I knew this isn’t fair.

Allen: What were your thoughts following the race, and did that individual take first place?

 The athlete didn’t take first place, but this athlete was amongst the top 10, I believe. And it was just very discouraging to see this athlete up there and just knowing that however hard I train probably is not going to do anything, because this athlete has so much more advantages than I do. And I just knew that this was going to be an issue.