Anya Wassenberg
July 04, 2013

Venus Williams and the Fight for Equal Pay

Venus Williams celebrating

Photo credit: Neale Cousland

“It was time for them to treat women equally and to pay equal prize money,” says Venus Williams in Venus Vs., a new documentary by writer/director Ava DuVernay.

Venus’ 2007 victory at Wimbledon– her third (of four eventually) – was twofold. In addition to the ladies’ title, she won a crucial decision for all women that’s not very well known, at least until now. As Venus Vs. chronicles, that was the year she won equal pay for female players at the world’s oldest Grand Slam event.

The film premiered July 2 as part of ESPN’s Nine for IX documentary series that features nine films by nine female directors commemorating the 40th (or by now 41st) anniversary of Title IX, part of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. The federal civil rights law prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender in education, and is known for giving girls equal access to sports at school, among other things.

Tennis is an olde school sport, it has to be said. Not surprisingly, Wimbledon was an all-male event when it debuted in 1877. It was thought that women were physically too weak to play the five-set matches and that legacy is why, to this day, women players still only play three-set matches in Grand Slam events. It’s also the argument most often used against equal pay for female players.

Billie Jean King

Billie Jean King

Raising the bar

However, there’s been a definite rise in the profile of female tennis players over the decades from the days of Chris Evert and Billie Jean King in the 1970s to Steffi Graf a decade later to Venus and Serena Williams and their debut on the professional stage in the mid-1990s. The Williams sisters revolutionized the game and raised the bar on athleticism.

Venus was certainly the right person to make the case for equal pay to the All England Club who hosts Wimbledon, as she first attempted in 2005. They turned her down but she was ready for them when she returned in 2007. This time, she wrote an op/ed for The Times of London arguing her case and the matter was actually brought up in Parliament. The powers that be at Wimbledon caved and when she won the title again in 2007, she got the same $1.4 million as men’s champion Roger Federer.

Venus Vs. traces Venus Williams early career as a child prodigy and focuses on her matches at Wimbledon in 2000, 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2008. She talks about being inspired by Billie Jean King, who famously won “The Battles of the Sexes” match against Bobby Riggs in 1973. The film includes many interviews with other major tennis players, but the filmmaker says there were also many who didn’t want to talk on camera about what is still a highly debated subject in the tennis world.

Venus is sitting Wimbledon out this year due to a back injury, but the legacy of her determination to get equal treatment will be enjoyed by whoever wins this year’s ladies’ title.