Venus Williams stand in front of a stadium crowd holding a tennis racket.

Venus Williams of the US arrives on court for the women’s singles second round match against Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur on day three of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London, Wednesday June 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

By Micha Green
D.C. and Digital Editor
mgreen@afro.com

While African-American women nationwide are said to make 63 cents for every dollar made by their White male counterparts, which is 19 cents less than the wage gap between White men and women, there is a Black woman who effectively fought for equal pay in tennis. Known for her record breaking athleticism at a young age, Venus Williams is also credited with her activism in ensuring that men and women were compensated equally in professional tennis, a fight that continues in many other athletic fields.

“I never planned on being an activist. I just planned on being a tennis player,” Williams wrote in a 2019 article for Glamour.

However, being a tennis player gave Williams insight on the inequality in the sport and a platform to speak out on injustices.

Being a tennis player gave Williams first-hand insight on inequalities in the sport and a platform to speak out on injustices. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Williams began her fight for equal pay in 1998, when she was just an 18-year-old at Wimbledon. The young player found herself picking up a torch first lit by celebrated women’s tennis player, Billie Jean King, who effectively led the fight for equal pay for men and women at the 1973 U.S. Open. King proved equal pay was well deserved just weeks later when she defeated Bobby Riggs at the “Battle of the Sexes,” in Houston.

While King achieved equal pay for players at the U.S. Open, almost 40 years later, Williams began working worldwide to close the wage gap across borders in professional tennis.

By 2005, Williams had already garnered four Grand Slam wins, but was still fighting for respect and equal pay in the sport. In 2005, Williams met with French Open officials and the day before she won Wimbledon she presented in front of the International Tennis Foundation’s (ITF) Grand Slam board on the importance of equal pay.

“When I was named Woman of the Year in 2005 (by Glamour), I had just won Wimbledon for the third time. But off the court I was fighting a different battle: The day before my final match, I attended a meeting to discuss the gap in prize money for men and women at the tournament. I asked everyone at the meeting to close their eyes and try to feel the person next to them. I asked, ‘Can you tell if that person is a man or a woman?’ I wanted to illustrate that all of our hearts beat the same rhythm, regardless of gender,” Williams wrote in the 2019 Glamour piece.

That historic meeting in 2005 with the ITF was not immediately effective and so Williams continued her activism efforts working with the Women’s Tennis Association and writing an open editorial in London’s The Times, which called for a closing of the gender wage gap. “I intend to keep doing everything I can until Billie Jean’s original dream of equality is made real,” Williams wrote in The Times op-ed.

It wasn’t until the 2007 Wimbledon, where Williams won again, that she was able to receive the same wage as her male counterparts. “When I won Wimbledon again in 2007, I became the first woman to receive equal prize money there. I was the first woman who could go into the finals focusing entirely on her game instead of thinking, ‘Hey, I’m not equal here,’” Williams reflected.

Williams’ activism has made such a difference that now, according to a 2020 Forbes list,

Known for her record breaking athleticism at a young age, Venus Williams is also credited with her activism in ensuring that men and women were compensated equally in professional tennis. (AP Photo by Tim Ireland)

the nine highest-paid female athletes are all tennis players, with Haitian and Japanese tennis sensation Naomi Osaka at the top of the earnings chart.

Although the tennis star is now celebrated for her activism, her outspokenness did not come without haters and criticism. “And were there critics? People who wanted me to just be quiet and play? Sure. But I let my racket do the talking,” Williams said before referencing the equal pay fight with the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team. “Their World Cup win made women’s soccer incredibly popular, and visible. They’re making the right moves to stand up, fight, and prove their worth by excelling at their sport. To me, that’s the only way to do it. Growing up, I was taught that if I saw something that wasn’t right, I had to do something, say something and not censor myself.”

Despite being met with criticism, Williams has sparked the fire for activism among other young, Black tennis athletes, like Osaka and Coco Gauff, both of whom have been active in the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Further, women across professional sports are continuing to be outspoken about the importance of equal pay. Williams said she is proud of the movement she has inspired among women in professional sports to close the wage gap.

“There’s still a lot of progress to be made in women’s sports, and it’s going slowly. Now, 14 years after I began my crusade for equal pay, what makes me the happiest is that I’ve been able to inspire other women to do the same,” Williams wrote in the 2019 Glamour contribution. “It’s exciting to see female athletes fight for change. It’s what I love about sports. The stakes are real,” she continued.

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Micha Green

AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor