The 40th anniversary of an international women’s labour event just passed, with 17 prominent union representatives gathering to commemorate it; one was an indigenous Australian, one a gay Eastern European refugee, two are sisters who required gang protection when growing up in South Central LA. The pay gap between men and women was sometimes 12:1 when the union was founded. 40 years later, the members of the Women’s Tennis Association are probably the best represented women workers in the world.
The union’s de facto stewards and representatives are the world number 1’s of women’s tennis. They carry a responsibility for not just women’s tennis, but all women athletes. Billie Jean King was the public face for the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match as a jock woman, but more importantly for the Title IX legislation in the US that equalised college sports funding for men and women. While many struggle to name the best women sprinters or footballers, the status of Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova are established alongside Federer, Nadal, or Agassi.
Collective bargaining in sports does not jump out as an applicable model to most workers. The words ‘aristocracy of labour’ don’t do justice to Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka earning $7 million last year. However, it is important to remember how other women tennis players are valued compared to other self-identified women athletes. Women footballers can’t be seen as inherently greedy or overpaid – Mia Hamm, the most famous woman footballer of all time, was earning around $90,000 annually at her peak a decade ago. That just 0.5% of all British sports sponsorship and 5% of sports coverage is awarded to women’s sport ensures they are not taken seriously and leads to lower pay. The WTA’s collective bargaining has ensured women players’ labour is recognised as deserving of compensation. In the context of restricted credit access to women in 1973, Billie Jean’s battle to gain respect and financial security for women players is all the more extraordinary.
Wimbledon is often the site for remaining inequities. BBC presenter John Inverdale commented last week that newly crowned singles champion Marion Bartoli was “[never] going to be a looker, you’ll never be a Sharapova.” Bartoli’s own response was that she dreamed to be Wimbledon champion, not a model. Indeed, Sharapova’s greatest accomplishment is to have won all four grand slams. Billie Jean’s crusades for gender equality have allowed a broader definition of ‘womanhood’ in tennis than other sports. Martina Navratilova tore down barriers as the first major ‘out’ player; Venus and Serena wrested tennis from the white country clubs, now a third of grassroots players in the US are black or Latino; Renee Richards gave a massive boost to transgender rights when she was allowed to compete in the 1977 US Open Women’s Singles; Kim Clijsters returned from motherhood and retirement to win 3 Grand Slams.
The fight most applicable to workers and self-identified women has been over pay equity. Billie Jean threatened to bring the US Open to a halt in 1971 by striking until women received pay equity at the tournament. The US Open organisers relented, but not at the other Grand Slams. The issue largely went away until the arrival of Venus Williams. Venus was not the first black player, but she was the first ‘showstopper’. Her arrival as a working-class black woman from Los Angeles was a challenge to the game’s country club ‘whiteness’. At the US Open in 1997, Irena Spirlea intentionally bumped into her when changing ends, an incident Venus recounted when describing how she never felt properly ‘American’ at the US Open. At Indian Wells in 2001, both she and her sister were booed throughout Serena’s final against Clijsters, both saying they heard the n-word shouted at them. Venus got into her angriest on-court argument when penalised a point for a bead falling out of her braided hair.
The attitudes were similarly reactionary with regards to pay equity. Famously, one Wimbledon organiser said “If we paid women more, we wouldn’t have so much to spend on petunias.” Players like Tim Henman accused women players of being “greedy”. Venus Williams took on these attitudes. She was used to being told to ‘know her place’. The day before her most famous victory in 2005, where she saved a championship point against Lindsay Davenport to win her third Wimbledon title, she used the most effective organising tool possible in a meeting with Wimbledon organisers – she shamed them by speaking the truth. The 97% women earned against the male players was not scientific, but a way of making a statement that the women were not as important. In a Times editorial, she challenged the idea women’s tennis was worth less than men’s, referring to her own 2005 victory which was 45 minutes longer than the men’s final. She tore apart the financial arguments, and exposed that women do not play best-of-5 set finals because of sponsors, tournament officials, and traditional attitudes, not the women players themselves. It is clear that women players will earn respect through greater compensation rather than demands for best-of-5 finals. By challenging the idea players should be compensated for court time alone, with women not training 2 sets less than men, she provided a broader idea of what labour entails and how it should be compensated.
The complaints of many male players are not without reason. Players who don’t get one quick break can become stuck in the futures and challengers events, often not earning enough to cover the costs of travel, food, and their training even when in the world’s top 100. The complaints of the male players are similar to those of the women, in that their access to quality training and courts is often tied to their ability to make money for sponsors. One solution may be a guaranteed salary for players with their earnings from tournament play as additional income, thus more fairly recognising their labour off court.
Professionalising tennis destroyed some barriers while creating others. The question of who owns sports and leisure is one that should not be ignored. Sports and leisure are often acknowledged as a healthy means for young men and boys to express masculinity. But it also needs to be recognised as a beneficial articulation of womanhood, with sports active girls less likely to develop mental health problems, worry about body image, and more likely to leave violent relationships. The success of women’s tennis on the WTA’s 40th anniversary shows a world is possible where ownership of sports and leisure is not inherently restricted to half the population. But it also shows the need to bring leisure into a more common form of ownership.