Venus Williams Took Inspiration From Her Mother to Fight For Pay Equality in Tennis

Photographs by Jill Greenberg

Venus Williams is a fierce warrior both on and off the court.

One of the all-time tennis greats and formerly ranked No. 1 in the world, she has advocated for pay equity for women in her profession for many years. For Williams, playing Wimbledon as a young athlete was an eye-opening experience in that regard.

“Getting there and realizing, ‘Wow, I’m not being paid equally,’ was just definitely a slap in the face to a 16-year-old. … It hit me hard,” says Williams, who at age 25 formally began crusading to close the pay gap so that women would earn equal prize money to men.

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Jill Greenberg for Variety

When she won her first major singles championship at Wimbledon in 2000, she was paid less than Pete Sampras, who took the men’s title. Seven years later when she won Wimbledon, she became the first woman to be paid equally to her male counterpart, Roger Federer.

“Two short years later, after 30-plus years of fighting for equal prize money, we finally arrived. It was a wonderful moment,” says Williams, who at 41 is training rigorously for a forthcoming tournament following a break after playing Wimbledon last July.

The battle to eradicate pay discrimination has also been hard-fought by other professional athletes, including soccer star Megan Rapinoe. In the early 1970s, Billie Jean King, one of Williams’ role models, brought awareness to the issue after being awarded $2,900 less than the male winner at the Italian Open. That said, the wage gap persists in other pro sports, such as basketball.

“It wasn’t until the ’60s that a woman first ran a marathon, and she had to pretend to be a guy,” she says. Williams also points out that it wasn’t long ago that women weren’t able to have credit cards and inherit property. “We’ve been fighting thousands of years of inequity, so we can’t think that [change] is going to happen overnight. We want it to, and we work at a pace so that it could be, theoretically, but it’s about changing minds, changing cultures, changing history, and it’s about not giving up,” says Williams, whose activewear and lifestyle brand EleVen empowers women to be their best selves.

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Jill Greenberg for Variety

Women, she says, are typically paid 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, and the wage gap is even wider for minorities, particularly women of color and beyond America’s borders. “At least in the United States you can have the conversation. Outside of the United States, it’s very difficult to have these conversations,” she adds.

As one of five sisters, Williams grew up in Compton, where the family runs a charity called the Yetunde Price Resource Center that provides wellness and healing services to the community and was founded in honor of oldest sister Yetunde, who was murdered in Compton at age 31.

Williams has fond memories of growing up in a family of girls: “There was always someone to gossip with, and we always had — and still have — a blast to this very day.” While their hard-charging father, Richard Williams, pushed Venus and Serena to become world-class players, it was their mother’s coaching, strength, humor and healthy life perspective that also helped motivate and shape the sisters in their formative years.

“My mom was an inspiration,” says Williams. “She’s a wonderful, fun lady, strong lady, good tennis player and a great cook. She’s also very spiritually strong, so it gave us an opportunity to have belief and hope and to be calm and not be stressed about the regular worries of the day.” Moreover, their mother, Oracene Price, “impressed upon us the importance of telling the truth and living the truth.” And, says Williams, she’s a great singer!

Venus, Serena and their sister Isha Price were “extremely involved” as executive producers of “King Richard” from the script stage on, working hard to ensure that every character was fully developed, says Williams. “So it’s not just a Richard Williams story or a Venus and Serena story — it’s a family story,” she says. (Williams declined to comment on star Will Smith’s Oscar slapping debacle.) The biggest contribution they made was helping find their mother’s voice in the story. “In the beginning, the voice wasn’t there. It was extremely important to show her strength and to show what she contributed to this family.”

In what is certainly an understatement, Williams says, “She didn’t raise any weak women.”

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