What a time to be alive, right?
It was just over a century ago that people were decrying the prospect of the first-ever female Olympians. And it was, literally, just a week ago that Fox News was decrying the prospect of the first-ever female U.S. President. I mean, really. Can you say, progress?
But all jokes aside, we really have evolved. Mostly.
This year, 292 women will represent the United States in the Olympics, making it the largest women’s team of any country ever and proving that female athletes have made huge strides in the sports arena (puns very much intended). But there’s a catch: they’re still not getting paid what they deserve. The good news? We are beginning to understand that the best damn female athletes in the entire world deserve to be paid like what they are: some of the best damn athletes in the entire world. And that means being paid equally with their male counterparts.
These moments of global clarity, however, don’t just burst onto the scene. They are the product of slow, steady pounding on a ceiling that is only now beginning to crack—thanks to the efforts of true firestarters who haven’t accepted unequal pay in their sports.
Here are six Olympians who’ve fought the good fight for equal pay. Ladies, we salute you.
#1: Billie Jean King
Yes, Billie Jean King delivered one of the most epic, most symbolic wins of all time when she defeated Bobby Riggs in 1973, but to leave her legacy there is a terrible mistake. King was a critical player in the fight for equal pay in women’s tennis. She organized and led the sport’s first players’ union in the early 1970s, and much to the chagrin of sponsors, threatened to sit out the U.S. Open if the prize money for men and women didn’t match within a year. A year later, the U.S. Open became the first major competition with equal prize money for men and women.
#2: Venus Williams
In 1998, at age 18, Venus Williams made her first public call for equal pay, putting major competitions that hadn’t followed the U.S. Open’s lead on blast for their lack of pay parity: “I think in the Grand Slam events, it should be equal pay, and I think the ladies should do something about it instead of just accepting it for years to come.” Take that for a call to action!
Turns out she was only getting started. In 2005, Williams calmly and eloquently dragged the suits behind the table at Wimbledon: “Imagine you’re a little girl…You fight, you work, you sacrifice to get to this stage. You work as hard as anyone you know. And then you get to this stage, and you’re told you’re not the same as a boy. Almost as good, but not quite the same. Think how devastating and demoralizing that could be.” The next year, Williams blessed us with a more public, still gracious, dragging of Wimbledon’s equal pay problem in an excoriating op-ed for British daily newspaper, The Times, titled, “Wimbledon has sent me a message: I’m only a second-class champion.” Boom. One year later, Wimbledon became the final Grand Slam tournament to ensure equal prize money for men and women. Thanks, Venus.
#3: Serena Williams
Venus isn’t the only Williams superstar to champion equal pay. Little sister and international bad-ass Serena hasn’t been one to mince words either. When men’s tennis player Novak Djokovic recently suggested that men deserve to be paid more, Serena offered a rather classy response: “Novak is entitled to his opinion but if he has a daughter — I think he has a son right now — he should talk to her and tell her how his son deserves more money because he is a boy.” Shall we call that a mic drop?
#4: US Women’s National Soccer Team
Here’s a little math for you: the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team holds three World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals (maybe a fifth in waiting, fingers crossed). They’ve drawn the largest viewing audience in U.S. soccer history, earned U.S. Soccer $17 million, plus a surplus for fiscal year 2017 (while the men’s team actually lost money), and, like winners, they’ve been rewarded with melted cleats, field injuries from unsafe equipment, artificial turf –– and four times less pay. In March, team members Alex Morgan, Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn filed a complaint against the U.S. Soccer Federation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but while the team’s effort has the full rhetorical support of the U.S. Senate behind them, neither the court nor the U.S. Soccer Federation have answered their demand to be paid like their male counterparts. However, given their record, we have a feeling these ladies won’t stop fighting until they win.
#5: Diana Taurasi
It’s not what Diana Taurasi said. It’s what she did that has reporters and players buzzing about better pay in the WNBA. Diana is the first WNBA player to altogether skip a season. That’s right. The first-round draft pick, three-time gold medalist, two-time WNBA champ, two-time MVP, three-time USA Female Athlete of the year skipped a season. Why would she do that? Because, like many of her colleagues in the WNBA, Taurasi plays year-round–but her winter league, the UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia, offers her 15 times her WNBA salary. Then they sweetened the deal: they offered her a six-figure bonus to sit out her WNBA season — a bonus bigger than her WNBA salary. Can you say no-brainer? Diana went with the team that was paying her what she’s worth. Taurasi’s decision to sit out sent reporters into a tailspin over equal pay in women’s basketball. As Vice put it, “When another league is paying your players to not play, your league has a problem.” How to fix it? Here’s another no-brainer: value WNBA players like their NBA counterparts.
#6: Layne Beachley
Surfing won’t be an Olympic sport until 2020, but those future Olympians will have Australian pro Layne Beachley to thank for getting loud about getting paid fairly. Beachley is a seven-time world surfing champion and repeat bullhorn for equal pay. In the late nineties and early aughts, female surfers like Beachley were literally called “a savior to the industry,” helping it became a billion-dollar sport. Despite the boon she and her female colleagues brought to competitions, Beachley said there was little to show for it besides women’s Roxy shorts and choppy waves. “‘If the waves are shit, send the girls out,’” is how Beachley describes the way they were treated. While Beachley’s native Australia hasn’t quite gotten on board, she’s totally made waves for female surfers worldwide. In 2015, the World Surf League announced equal prize money for male and female competitors on their Championship Tour, a huge move to level the playing field. Now, Beachley is inspiring a new generation of female surfers to speak up.