Michelle Obama, the former first lady, has joined the chorus of voices advocating for gender pay equity in women's sports. She addressed this crucial issue during the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of equal prize money at the U.S. Open on Monday, August 28.
The event also served as a tribute to the iconic tennis figure and equal pay advocate, Billie Jean King.
“Billie Jean had a choice. She could put her head down, keep winning tournament after tournament and just accept whatever check she was given,” Obama said. “Or she could dig deep and break serve, she could make a stand.”
Here’s to @BillieJeanKing and all the changemakers who broke barriers and opened doors for future generations—and to the @USOpen for raising the bar not just for the tennis world, but for the entire world. 🎾 pic.twitter.com/SC3Y9nd1OS
— Michelle Obama (@MichelleObama) August 29, 2023
The 79-year-old has been a longstanding advocate for the United States Tennis Association and sponsors to facilitate equal prize money. The 1972 U.S. Open champion united other female athletes to threaten a boycott of the 1973 U.S. Open unless gender-based pay disparity was rectified.
King's efforts contributed to the 1973 U.S. Open becoming the first sporting event to offer equal prize money ($25,000) to both male and female players. It would take 34 years before all the other Grand Slam tournaments followed suit. This year, singles champions will earn $3 million.
The topic of equal pay in sports has seen a significant increase of attention being given in recent times. When looking at the U.S, the U.S. Women’s National Team has won four World Cup championships — making it the most successful team in international women’s soccer. The men’s team has won zero.
Internationally, FIFA had previously pledged that half of the expanded $110 million prize pool for the Women’s World Cup would be paid to the players across the 32 teams — over three times the fund for the 2019 tournament. The FIFA president, however, has now said he cannot guarantee the players will see that money. Meanwhile, FIFA paid $440 million in prize money to the men who played in the World Cup last year.
In tennis, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) created a plan in June to distribute equal prize money at certain events by 2027 and for all tournaments by 2033.
This month, Novak Djokovic and Coco Gauff emerged victorious in the men’s and women’s singles categories at Ohio's Western & Southern Open. Notably, Jannik Sinner and Jessica Pegula experienced an analogous outcome a week earlier at the National Bank Open in Canada, mirroring the earnings of Djokovic and Gauff, respectively.
Bravo Coco🙌🏾 More of the same 🙌🏾
At only 19 YO, #CocoGauff is now the youngest ever Women's Singles winner at Cincinnati and only the second teenager to win WTA 1000 title.
Congratulations 🥳🥳🥳🎾👟🎾 pic.twitter.com/FERpHOvIxX
— New African Woman Magazine (@newafricanwoman) August 21, 2023
These instances underscore the ongoing conversations surrounding financial parity and its evolving trajectory within the world of sports.
“Let us remember that all of this is far bigger than a champion’s paycheck — this is about how women are seen and valued in this world,” Obama said. “Sadly, we have seen how quickly progress like this can be taken away if we are not mindful and vigilant, if we do not keep remembering and advocating and organizing and speaking out, and yes, voting.”