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Venus Williams reflects on her fight for equal pay at Wimbledon

April 18, 2022, 1:39 PM UTC
Venus Williams competing at Wimbledon in 2021.
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Jill Biden hosts an educational White House Easter Egg Roll, Allyson Felix will run one last track and field season, and Venus Williams has been fighting for equal pay since she was 18. Have a fabulous Monday.

– Grand slam. When you think of the fight for equal pay in sports, who comes to mind? The U.S. Women’s National Team, which famously fought for equal pay in soccer for years? Or perhaps Billie Jean King, who launched the Women’s Tennis Association?

On that list should be seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams, who, in the mid-2000s, played an instrumental role in securing equal prize money for men and women at Wimbledon, the last of the four major tennis championships to close its gender pay gap. (Ava DuVernay even made a 2013 ESPN documentary about the battle.) Williams first spoke out about the gender gap in prize money when she was competing at Wimbledon at age 18, before securing the victory for women’s sports in 2007, nine years later.

The U.S. Open was the first Grand Slam championship to award equal prize money—$25,000—to the men’s and women’s champions in 1973, after Billie Jean King threatened a boycott. (King’s equal pay campaign kicked off three years earlier, when the Italian Open paid the men’s champion $3,500, nearly six times more than King’s $600 winnings.)

By the mid-2000s, Wimbledon’s pay gap was smaller, with a 5% difference between the £655,000 and £625,000 checks for men and women. Still, Williams kept the pressure on the British championship, starting in earnest with her 2005 singles title. After a direct appeal to the governing body failed to achieve immediate results, Williams wrote an op-ed in the British press, saying that the disparity sent a message that she was a “second-class champion.” In 2007, Williams became the first women’s singles champion to earn truly equal prize money, equivalent to $1.4 million, when she won the competition for the fourth time.

Last month, I spoke to Williams about her fight for equal pay as she launched a marketing campaign to close the gender pay gap through her lifestyle brand EleVen. Calling in from a youth tennis clinic in Florida, Williams reflected on what inspired her to tackle this issue as a young athlete and why she’s still advocating for equal pay today.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Venus Williams competing at Wimbledon in 2021.
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

On why she started her fight for equal pay:

Unequal pay was something I experienced from a young age, and I didn’t want any other young woman to have to go through that.

It was something that I never planned. I just wanted to go and be my best and try to be the best in the world. But then, when you get there, you have to do something about it. Very much the same way Billie Jean King wanted to play tennis, and then she ended up starting the tour, I had an opportunity to do something so much greater than what I was accomplishing on the court for myself.

On whether the campaign for equal pay affected her game:

Not at all. Being on the court for me is very freeing. I’m very focused on that and nothing else. I was able to compartmentalize it and I enjoyed doing that work. It was an honor. It was a privilege. But it was challenging, it was hard, it was frustrating.

On the process of securing equal prize money:

Every year we would present to the Grand Slam committee, and we were turned down. That had been going on since women’s tennis started as a professional paid sport—30 years of being turned down. That was a very, very difficult thing to swallow.

I think we were all ready to fight for the next 30 years if we had to. Two years was much shorter than we expected. And it was just the most exciting feeling of relief.

On the connection between the fight for equal pay in tennis and other movements:

All of it’s connected, right? When we saw women’s soccer achieve that as well—that was the best moment of the year for me.

It’s not only about the pay, it’s about the opportunity. When we have opportunities, we’re able to contribute to our families, our communities, our lives. When women don’t have those opportunities, the community suffers. It is the same conversation, whether it’s in offices or on the sporting courts.

Emma Hinchliffe

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