In honor of Women's History Month, espnW is running a weekly personal essay on influential female athletes.
Racism and sexism shackle even the strongest athletes. These structural antagonisms cannot be out-run, out-served, or out-jumped by any single person: these fetters can only be dismantled by brave voices rising together. The history of women's tennis offers us a string of athletes who have done just that.
In 1947, Althea Gibson won the first of 10 consecutive championships of the American Tennis Association. The young black woman from Harlem buzzed with natural quickness and agility. Despite her mounting victories, Gibson was not invited to play in the U.S. Opens: athletes could only gain entry to the national championships by accumulating points from authorized tournaments at white-only clubs.
The institutional racism of women's tennis irritated one of its greats, four-time U.S. Open champion Alice Marble. Impatient that the sport prioritized racism over talent, Marble published a letter in the July 1950 American Lawn Tennis Magazine. "We can accept the evasions," she wrote, "or we can face the issue squarely and honestly. It so happens that I tan very easily in the summer, but I doubt that anyone ever questioned my right to play in the Nationals because of it."
Marble's letter was the most powerful serve of her career. Her words, carefully spun and sharply delivered, hit women's tennis in its weakest point: its insidious racism. Shortly after the publication of Marble's message, Gibson was admitted to the U.S. Open, winning it within a few years.
Notably, Marble did not choose to share her convictions through a press conference, by phoning high-ranking connections, or by shrugging in despair: she wrote about them. Unlike silence or chatter, writing creates a liminal audience; readers can amble through Marble's thoughts through the jungle of their own. For reader and author, writing helps us not only see what we are, but imagine what we can become. Writing lays groundwork for making the impossible possible.
Marble's note provoked not only a redefinition of tennis, but also a reckoning with its reality. She did not feign color-blindness; she clearly saw racism and its impact on tennis. Her writing urged the predominantly white tennis elites to not only see their limiting beliefs, but to move beyond them. Allowing Gibson to play in the U.S. Open was one important step on a long road toward more equitable tennis. Without its desegregation, tennis would have been denied its best players: Venus and Serena Williams.
Carrying on Marble's legacy, more than 60 years later, Venus Williams picked up a pen to advocate for more equitable conditions of women's tennis. Like Marble, Williams drew attention to institutional inequities, but this time for gender equity in prize money. Great athletes don't only challenge physical limits; they expand the boundaries of our minds.
In a 2006 op-ed in The London Times, Williams called for equal prize money for men and women's Wimbledon championship. She wrote, "I'm disappointed ... the home of tennis is sending a message to women across the world that we are inferior." Six months later, Wimbledon announced the same prize money for men and women.
Marble, a white woman, pressed for greater racial justice in tennis; Williams, a black woman, wrote on behalf of gender pay equity. Together, their words formed a path beyond the limits of racism and sexism. While their triumphs are individual, their effects accumulate. Therefore, great athletes don't simply display their own athletic genius, they provide athletic leadership for others.
Williams' and Marble's writing extended their prowess beyond the tennis courts, noting the racist and sexist practices that structure the game to begin with. Their writing both exposed injustices in tennis and created the path toward alternatives. Yet, we do not need to be professional athletes to break the shackles of racism and sexism. As Marble and Williams show us, we need only to speak up for one another. A fierce and well-timed letter can do a lot. A legacy of champion women tennis players prove it.
Eleni Schirmer is a doctoral student at University of Wisconsin-Madison in Educational Policy Studies and Curriculum and Instruction, studying social movements and education. Her writing has appeared in Jacobin, The Progressive, LaborNotes and Education Review.