This week, FIFA Women’s World Cup opened in Germany for about three weeks and this is only its sixth edition. On the other hand, the FIFA World Cup, which, unlike its lady counterpart, requires no gender in its title, has been going on since 1930. It’s all part of a pattern that has emerged in sports. The WNBA started in 1996, National Pro Fastpitch (softball) in 1997, Lingerie Football League in 2001, Women’s Boxing Championships in 2001, and Women’s Professional Soccer (USA) in 2009. It has taken women a while to get their own sports leagues and they still are not getting paid nearly as much as their male counterparts.
There is, however, one exception: tennis.
The 125th Championships Wimbledon is nearing its completion with Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova playing for the title on Saturday (NBC), and again, this year the Ladies’ Champion will earn 1.1 million pounds ($1.76 million). Surprisingly, their male counterparts will be earning the exact same. Of course this hasn’t always been the case. In 2007 Wimbledon caved to pressure and became the last of the four majors (Australian Open, French Open, US Open) to give equal prize money to men and women winners.
Some history — women have been allowed to play in the majors since the very beginning and there have been grand slam champions since 1884 (7 years after the first men’s champion at Wimbledon). The sport has evolved throughout the 20th century, with women becoming a big attraction for the tournaments, especially during the 1960s when tennis allowed “professionals” (sponsored athletes) the chance to play at the grand slams. Billie Jean King, holder of 12 grand slam singles titles, has championed for women’s rights since she started playing the game. King helped create the first women’s professional circuit (Virginia Slims) and was the first woman to earn over $100,000 (1971). One of the great moments in her career was in 1972 when she won the U.S. Open, but received a check for $15,000 less than her male counterpart. She stated that she wouldn’t come back to defend her title the next year unless the U.S. Open gave the women’s champion the same prize money. They did.
[Ed note: Kick ass lady Billie Jean King celebrates some awesome milestones this week: the 50th anniversary of her first Wimbledon Championship and the 40th anniversary of Title IX.]
It took 27 years for the Australian Open to follow the U.S. Open’s example, then the French Open, and finally Wimbledon. The fight was started by King, but many other players, most notably Venus Williams, have helped. Many commentators believe Williams’ 2006 editorial in The Times was the single most important factor that pressured Wimbledon officials to change their “traditional minds” in 2007 (Venus won Wimbledon that year). Seven-time singles champion John McEnroe in 2007 stated, “There’s probably no other sport, and very few professions in this world, where a woman can earn as much as a man.” Of course, this is a small step for equal rights across the board — one that is still controversial, sadly — but it is one that should be celebrated. Billie Jean King said it best, “Women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sports. Equal prize money is a no-brainer.”
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