All-American: Venus & Serena

Episode 6: You've Come a Long Way, Baby!

 Venus Williams: Well, it's almost 5000 miles from California to the green grass at Wimbledon. 


Cecil Harris: Venus Williams made this video in 2019 to document her journey as she returned to Wimbledon for the 22nd time in her career. 


Venus Williams: Wimbledon, of course, is the birthplace of tennis. It's the most prestigious grand slam that you can win or dream of winning. So, of course, that's the pinnacle of tennis. 


Cecil Harris: Wimbledon is Venus's favorite tournament. I've been to Wimbledon and seen its traditions firsthand. It's held every summer in London at the All England Lawn Tennis Club. It's the only major tournament that is still played on grass. Players are required to wear white. The biggest matches are played on center court, affectionately known as the Cathedral of Tennis. And it's hard to miss the influence of the British royal family on the place. The president of the club is the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton. Seating is limited and the most exclusive seating is reserved for the royal family, diplomats and other special guests in the royal box. And until 2000, three tennis players were required to curtsy or bow in front of it. 


TV Journalist: When you walk out on center court, your turn. You'll do a curtsy at the Royal Box. What's going to be going through your mind at that stage? 


Venus Williams: I don't know. I'd like to think I'd be pretty relaxed and just ready to fire. Yeah, it's always fun coaching anyway. 


Cecil Harris: Venus has wanted to win Wimbledon since she was a little girl her first time there at 17. She lost in the first round, but each year she kept trying. By 2000, when Venus was 20, she made it to the final. 


TV Journalist: But. But even though you've made it, you think it's a dream. Don't you know? Somebody is going to pinch you in a minute and you're going to wake up? 


Venus Williams: I don't think it's a dream. I mean, I've been working hard. I've had a lot of tough losses in Grand Slams, and I deserve to be here. It's no dream. 


Cecil Harris: Venus won that final match and became the 2000 Wimbledon champion. 


TV Journalist: Venus. Ebony Starr Williams. Congratulations, Champion. 


Venus Williams: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you. 


TV Journalist: 42 years ago, Althea Gibson stood on this spot. What does that mean to you? 


Venus Williams: It means a lot. And I know she's somewhere watching this. 


Cecil Harris: This was Venus's first major tournament win. And as NBC's but Collins mentioned, Venus was the first black woman to win this tournament since Althea Gibson in 1958. A lot had changed in the sport since Althea had last played Wimbledon, especially when it came to money, when Althea won more than four decades earlier. Players did not receive prize money, and when Venus won in 2000, she was paid 430,000 English pounds. That was about 559,000 U.S. dollars at the time. But she was paid less than her male counterpart. Today we dig into the long fight against the pay gap in professional tennis and how Venus Williams finally closed it. I'm Cecil Harris, and this is all American. Venus and Serena. Episode six You've Come A Long Way, Baby. You can't tell the story of fighting for pay equity in tennis without hearing from tennis great Billie Jean King. 


Billie Jean King: I was very sad in those days because we didn't make any money. 


Cecil Harris: We reached out to Billie Jean for her thoughts because she is essential to the story. She told us about the lack of prize money for women players early in her career, and that in a lot of ways the fight for equal pay in tennis all started with Althea Gibson. 


Billie Jean King: Just think what she did for the future generations, because now we have women and women of color making a lot of money. The tennis players make the most money off the court as well. But Althea was a big part of starting all of this. 


Cecil Harris: Remember in our last episode, we talked about how Althea Gibson retired from tennis in 1958 because she couldn't earn money competing in the sport even though she was number one in the world. But what we didn't tell you is that ten years later, in 1968, tennis embraced a professional model, meaning suddenly there was prize money on the table. Competitors were now playing for cash. It was the start of a new era, the open era. Although Billie Jean King and other players could technically make money in the sport. The open era came with its own set of issues, issues like equal pay. Women were not making nearly the same amount of money men were making, even though they were playing the same sport. Billie Jean King was vocal about this pay discrepancy. Essentially from the start of the open era. Here she is in 1972, in her late twenties, telling a BBC reporter about the issue. 


Billie Jean King: All I knew is that I didn't feel tennis was right. We are part of women's lib in that we have done something and that we've created an opportunity for women of all ages to at least try to make it. 


Cecil Harris: The BBC crew was interviewing Billie Jean because they were doing a profile on her and a group of nine female tennis professionals who took a big risk just two years before they started their own tour. There was a chance that doing so could backfire. The USTA could cut ties with the women, but it was worth it to them because even though prize money was available, making money in tennis was still very hard to do. As a female professional, starting a new tennis league was a way for this group of women to make a living wage. The group became known as the original nine. But in order for the original nine to make money on their own, their tour would need a sponsor. 


TV Commercial: You've come a long way, baby, to get where you've got to do. Introducing New Virginia Slims the slim cigaret for women only. 


Cecil Harris: Although a cigaret company may have seemed like an unlikely corporate sponsor for a group of elite athletes, the timing was right for both the original Nine and Virginia Slims. The tennis tour needed funding. Virginia Slims needed positive publicity, so the Virginia Slims circuit was born. 


TV Journalist: The Philip morris group manufactures Virginia Slims Cigarets, a product aimed at the liberated women. The suppressed creature of former days, refused permission to smoke by a male chauvinist world is transformed into a groovy chick, complete with dangling cigaret and the slogan You've come a long way, baby. That motif is repeated constantly around the courts. Wherever the women play their risk. 


Cecil Harris: The original nine took by starting their own league paid off. The Virginia Slims tour became a huge success. The cigarette company pumped more than $300,000 in prize money into the tour in its first year, and Billie Jean and the other women were suddenly making more money on the Virginia Slims tour than they could anywhere else in tennis. Women's tennis was proving it could generate lots of money. The league grew beyond the original nine. It even became international. But for the women of the Virginia Slims tour, this was just the beginning. They wanted equal prize money from America's major tournament, the U.S. Open. To give you an idea of the pay discrepancy at this time, when Billie Jean King won the 1971 US Open, she was paid $5,000 while the men's champion was paid $15,000 three times more. The U.S. Open was not interested in paying women equal prize money, and a culture of deeply rooted sexism wasn't helping anything. To learn more about this fight for equal prize money, we called up journalist Janet Howard. Janet is an expert on the fight for equal pay in tennis, and she co-wrote All in Billie Jean King's autobiography. She told us that in the sixties and seventies, some men in the sport were pretty open about not wanting women to be paid the same as them. 


Billie Jean King: It's sort of bracing now when you read the comments because they were uttered so openly, you know, and with no fear of recrimination. It seemed like Stan Smith said these women should stay home. They won't listen to anybody else. They have their own careers. And. And other players had said they weren't attractive and they they wouldn't want to date them and they wouldn't want their daughter to be a, you know, a women's tennis player. 


Cecil Harris: In fact, the women's movement and the Virginia Slims tour seeking pay equity was bothering enough male tennis players. That one decided to make a whole exhibition out of it. Following is an exclusive. 


TV Journalist: Presentation of ABC Sports live from the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. The tennis battle of the sexes, Billie Jean King versus Bobby Riggs. 


Cecil Harris: Bobby Riggs was a retired tennis pro. He was a talented player in his day. He won Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals, which became the U.S. Open. And he's even in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. But in addition to tennis, Bobby was almost just as famous for being a hustler and gambler. In 1973, Bobby Riggs was 55 years old, and he staged his biggest hustle to date when he challenged 29 year old Billie Jean King to a highly publicized tennis match called The Battle of the Sexes. The idea was to see if one of the best female tennis players in the world could actually beat a man. It was also completely absurd. There were corporate sponsorships and gimmicks everywhere. Bobby Riggs rode out onto the court in a chariot wearing a jacket supplied by Nabisco, which read Sugar Daddy. And he handed Billie Jean King a massive lollipop. Guess you're going to be a sucker for my lives. And I saw my brother the biggest sucker I could possibly find in return. Billie Jean gave Bobby Riggs an actual baby pig, an ode to his self-proclaimed title of male chauvinist pig. I'm ready to play and I'm going to. 


TV Journalist: Try to win. For all the guys around the world who feel as I do, that the male is king, the male, the supreme. 


Cecil Harris: Many people, even Chris Evert, thought Billie Jean King could not beat Bobby Riggs, especially because Riggs had recently challenged and defeated Margaret Court. Court was the second best women's player in the world, but Billie Jean King was number one, and she said she felt incredible pressure to win. The feminist. 


TV Journalist: Thing, how important is that really? 


Billie Jean King: The women's movement is important to me as long as it stays practical. And I think that the women's movement is really making a better life for more people other than just women. And I feel very strongly about from that point of view. 


Cecil Harris: Billie Jean played a brilliant game of tennis that night. She exhausted Riggs and beat him in straight sets in a best of five set match. 


TV Journalist: And so this is what it's come down to here in the Houston Astrodome. 


Cecil Harris: The battle of the sexes generated tons of money and attention. In addition to the thousands of people at the Astrodome that night, 90 million people viewed the match worldwide. This match made Billie Jean King a household name. But just two months before she beat Bobby Riggs in front of millions of people behind closed doors, Billie Jean made something just as significant happen. 


Billie Jean King: She met with Billie Talbot, the chairman of the U.S. Open at Forest Hills, which was the site of the tournament, two time, one on one, and told him, if you guys don't let out the prize money, we're not coming next year. We're not showing up. 


Cecil Harris: Billie Jean King and other female tennis players like Chris Evert had gained such a significant following that their absence from the U.S. Open would have been embarrassing for the USGA. So just before the 1973 U.S. Open, the tournament, with the help of a grant from Ban Deodorant, agreed to pay the women the same as the men. This was a breakthrough moment for women's tennis. No other major tournament had offered women and men the same amount of prize money. But in the years and decades that followed. Equal pay at the U.S. Open, progress plateaued. The three other Grand Slam tournaments the French Open, the Australian Open and Wimbledon would not agree to pay men and women the same for quite a while. Scott. If you're wondering why those tournaments refuse to pay men and women the same, here's the argument. Men play longer matches than women. Men play best of five set matches. Women play best of three. Tournament officials, male players, some media members and even fans have argued that the men have to work longer and harder. Therefore, they should be paid more. But tennis makes its money from spectators, and spectators are looking for entertaining quality matches. Longer matches are not necessarily better. And in the early 2000s, no American players were more entertaining than Venus and Serena Williams. 


Billie Jean King: And I think people just started to revisit it and think this was just unacceptable, especially when the Williams sisters came along and women's tennis was in arguably the best show. And so the confluence of those things and the Williams sisters descent sort of reanimated the argument. 


Cecil Harris: With Venus and Serena as American tennis most marketable stars. Women's tennis was proving to be a bigger draw than men's tennis, but the pay gap in tennis was still not fully closed. By 2005, the Australian Open was paying women equal prize money. And pay parity was in the works at the French Open, too. But Wimbledon tennis is oldest and most prestigious tournament was holding out. By this point, Billie Jean King had long retired from tennis, but she was still invested in the conversation about equal pay. To close the gap at Wimbledon. She knew she needed help. 


Billie Jean King: We had to get a player. It would be our the face of equal prize money. And Venus was definitely our first choice. We didn't even have to think about it, really. And she just took up the mantle right away. 


Cecil Harris: That year at Wimbledon. Venus Williams attended an exclusive meeting, a meeting with Grand Slam officials. This was highly unusual because players do not attend this meeting. And Venus would be playing in the final the very next day instead of mentally preparing for the match, 25 year old Venus Williams spoke to a roomful of men about pay equity. 


Billie Jean King: She spoke with the women committee and had them close their eyes and pretend they were a nine year old little girl and really went through the feelings of what a female would think, that we'd want equal prize money. Wouldn't you want that for your daughters? 


Cecil Harris: The speech didn't prove to be immediately effective. The men in the room didn't commit to any changes. They asked some questions, but nothing was decided. The next day, Venus took the court against Lindsay Davenport in the women's final. It was an unusually long match. It lasted almost 3 hours. Don't. When she won the match, Venus collapsed to her knees after her opponent congratulated her. She jumped up and down several times as the crowd cheered her on. It was women's tennis at its very best. Tennis at its very best. 


TV Journalist: Venus, congratulations. Have you stopped jumping yet? 


Venus Williams: Oh, I don't. I have to thank God Jehovah. Thank you for her. Let me be healthy. Thank you for letting my family be with me. My sister Lynn is here. My mom is here. My dad is here. Your mom, Carrie, Carlos, everybody. Thank you for staying here with me. 


TV Journalist: Well said. 


Cecil Harris: Venus was the Wimbledon champion just four years earlier. The on court correspondent asked her how it felt to be back. 


Venus Williams: I just you never know what life is going to throw at you. And each and every day, I just I just expect the sun to come up. That's all these days. 


Cecil Harris: Even after winning the most entertaining match that year at Wimbledon and the longest women's final in the tournament's history, Venus would not be receiving equal prize money. She was paid 600,000 English pounds, £30,000 less than the men's winner. In the grand scheme of things, £30,000 is not much at all to Wimbledon, but symbolically it was a big deal. Wimbledon's refusal to not cover this small difference was an insult to the women players. This pay discrepancy didn't deter Venus, though. She hatched a new plan the following year. The day before the start of Wimbledon. In 2006, Venus wrote an essay that was published in the Times of London. Here's Janet Anderson, a long time member of the UK Parliament reading from Venus essay. 


Janet Anderson: It is a shame that the greatest tournament in tennis, which should be a positive symbol for this sport, has been tarnished. And how can it be that Wimbledon that finds itself on the wrong side of history? So I intend to keep doing everything I can until Billie Jean King's original dream of equal prize money is made true. 


Cecil Harris: Anderson first read Venus Essay when it was originally published in 2006, and it really stuck with her. 


Janet Anderson: I've always loved tennis, but it was a long time before I realized that actually there was this unfairness and I couldn't understand why the All England Tennis Club was so reluctant to do this over here. It did seem extremely unfair. 


Cecil Harris: Janet hadn't even been aware of the pay discrepancy at Wimbledon, but she was outraged by it after reading Venus column. 


Janet Anderson: So it seemed to me obvious that we needed to put the pressure on to try and get them to change their mind. And that's why I decided to help with that. 


Cecil Harris: Pay equity was becoming a hot topic in the UK and workplaces homes, even in Parliament. A few weeks after Venus's essay was published, Prime Minister Tony Blair met with Parliament to take questions which the Prime Minister does only a few times a year. 


Janet Anderson: And this is 30 minutes when any member of Parliament can ask the question of the Prime Minister and you can ask the question about absolutely anything. And the Prime Minister has to answer it. 


Cecil Harris: During Janet Anderson's nearly two decades in office. She had been selected to ask a question only twice. So she needed a way to make sure she could attract attention. She wore a bright red jacket in a sea of black and gray coats. Janet caught the eye of the Speaker of the House of Commons, and he called on her. 


Parliment Official: Janet Anderson. 


Janet Anderson: Is my right honorable Friend, aware that 30 years on, from the introduction of the Equal Pay Act by a Labor government, the winner of the women's singles at Wimbledon will receive £30,000 less. Prize money that the winner of the men's singles and that this is the only grand slam where this occurs. Will my Russian boyfriend support his right? Honorable friend, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in her efforts to persuade the Lawn Tennis Association. 


Janet Anderson: This equality rights. He does not know what the questions are going to be. But the one thing about Tony Blair is, if he agrees with you, he will tell you. If he doesn't agree with you, he will tell you as well. 


TV Journalist: But I was somewhat coy on that yesterday, not having realized that my right honorable friend had already pronounced on it. So I'm very happy to be bolder today. Welcome what she said and endorse it fully. David Cameron Yeah, thank you, Mr. Speaker. Can I echo? 


Janet Anderson: Oh, I was just absolutely Cockermouth. And you know, the one thing about being a member of Parliament and I'm sure it's very similar in the US is sometimes you can bash away at an issue day after day after day and and not get anywhere. So if you can use that in somewhere like the British Parliament to make a difference to an important issue, it's hugely rewarding to have been able to be part of that at last. 


Cecil Harris: In 2007. Wimbledon announced that it would pay equal prize money to men and women. 


Janet Anderson: But I do think it was Venus who kind of brought it to the fore and really made everyone aware of it. And she really deserves the credit, I think, for the fact that the change was in the end made. And I suppose what we were all trying to do was embarrass the All England Lawn Tennis Club to say, look, you know, your attitudes are really Victorian. To pay women less than men. It's just not all in today's world. 


TV Journalist: How? This is about. A good asset as you're going to see him, Venus Williams win Wimbledon like this. Yes. Two years ago. Yeah. 


TV Journalist: She's going to win it again if she's playing like this, I'll tell you. 


Cecil Harris: Venus returned to Wimbledon in 2007. This is the broadcast from her fourth round match against Maria Sharapova since 2000. Venus had won the tournament three times. 


TV Journalist: Venus Williams. Again flashing that. Champion's smile that we've seen so often on this court. Where she's had more success than anywhere. This is her eighth Wimbledon since she became a champion here. And still, the only player that's beaten her on this court Is her sister. 


Cecil Harris: After winning that match. Venus kept on winning until she advanced all the way to the final. This time she would be playing not just for the title of Wimbledon champion, but also for equal prize money for the first time in the tournament's history. It had been 34 years since the first woman won equal prize money at a major tournament thanks to Billie Jean King. And now, thanks to Venus Williams. For the very first time, the winner of the women's draw would receive equal prize money at Wimbledon. £700,000 on the day of the final. Billie Jean King was there, sitting in the royal box. She watched as Venus defeated her opponent in straight sets. 


Billie Jean King: And she looked up at me, actually, when she gave her speech and thanked me and the older players for what we'd done and started the fight for equal prize money. And she she finished it. It was really a beautiful moment. 


TV Commercial: What is it about this court that is so special? You seem to save your best tennis for center court. 


Venus Williams: So you and I, we would always say how much we wanted to win Wimbledon. We just felt it was so important. And of course, now that we have equal prize money. I know. I see Billie Jean King up there. She thought for years. He. I love you. I played back up under her. No one loves tennis more than her. She's done so much for women's tennis. I wouldn't be here without her. And thank you to the All England Club. Well, so we're playing under equal terms. 


Cecil Harris: Venus Williams took up this fight for equal pay at Wimbledon when she was 25 years old. And in two years time, it was realized. Venus is now in her early forties, and she's still an advocate for equal pay. Beyond the tennis court. 


TV Journalist: Venus Williams is here tonight. There she is in 2021. 


Cecil Harris: Venus guested on The Late Late Show with James Corden and talked about her efforts to close the gender economic gap through a program she started called Privileged Text. 


Venus Williams: It's really near and dear to me, having experienced inequality and me having been a girl just wanting to grow up and win Wimbledon and then getting there and realizing, Gosh, I'm not actually being paid equally, I'm considered less. 


Cecil Harris: Venus explained that her fight for equal pay at Wimbledon inspired women in other sports to fight for pay equity, too. 


Venus Williams: But the fight is not over. There's still inequality on all levels for women. 


Cecil Harris: Venus has settled into being a leader and an activist. She's more than just a tennis star. Just like her dad always said she would be. Next time on All all-American How the Williams sisters changed the look of tennis fashion by rejecting traditional country club attire and pushing the fashion envelope. 


Cecil Harris: In All American is a production of Witness Docs from Stitcher. This episode was written and reported by Albert Chen and Jordan Bell. Our mix engineer is Casey Holford, who also composed our original music. Our senior producer is Jordan Bell. Our story editor is Johanna Palmer. Our executive producer is Camille Stanley. Extra production support from Nora Ritchey, Gwen Igor Vega and Manolo Morales. Fact Checking by Kelvin Sea Bias. Legal support from Sidney Freeman and Thomas Burke at Davis Wright Tremaine I'm your host, Cecil Harris. Don't forget to subscribe to the show and leave us a review wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks for listening.