It was the summer of 1974, midway through the tennis season. The headline in the sports section of a Canadian daily newspaper read: “Jane talented ... and pretty.” The writer went on to pay me what I’m sure he thought was the CN Tower of compliments: “Jane is an attractive 22-year-old who could catch a man’s eye both on and off the court.” I would love to report that I hated the description and that the next time I saw the writer I gave him a piece of my finely tuned feminist mind. The truth is, I loved it. Me, a woman tennis player, attractive? How kind of him to notice.
And wait till my mother heard about it. She, after all, was concerned that I put my best face forward while competing. Time and again, she would look worried when she’d come upon a newspaper picture of me, contorted in the way athletes are when winning becomes Darwinian. Gently, because she knew I was about to take her head off, she’d say: “Why don’t you smile more on the court. You take such a lovely picture when you smile.”
My mother wasn’t The Anti-Feminist.
She liked me playing tennis, was elated when I’d win a Wimbledon match or got through to the round of 16 at the U.S.
Open. She applauded women being physical, powerful, knocking the cover off a tennis ball or shooting hoops.
But she was aware that there was another world operating out there, a world in which women were being judged on how they looked as well as on how hard they played. She was warning me with a mother’s Morse code not to break the rules.
She was on to something that generations of women athletes had long known: if you were going to play sports, you’d better walk softly and carry a big lipstick.
Of course, this was more than 20 years ago. And we weren’t a very enlightened group. Gender politics? We hardly knew from regular politics. In 1971, at a tournament in South Africa, I was drawn to play Evonne Goolagong, the graceful Australian star who happened to be part aboriginal. We’d heard the word apartheid, but it meant little to us. We were too busy trying to find practice courts. To our shame, even when we found out that Goolie wasn’t allowed to change in the “white” dressing room, we never raised a peep. As for being feminists, it was Billie Jean King who single-handedly brought the F-word to women’s tennis.
Jane O’Hara played seven years on the world tennis tour. She then launched a career in journalism, working 10 years at Maclean’s and later serving as sports editor of The Ottawa Sun. She now teaches journalism at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto.
In the ’70s, King radicalized the sport and tried to change the way women were valued. Like most Americans, she thought money alone would do it. It was the era of “Open” professional tennis, after all. But Open didn’t mean equal when it came to men and women getting paid for playing the same game. At some tournaments, men were making eight times as much as the women.
The guys who ran tennis thought this split more than fair. They said: “Who watches women’s tennis anyway?” Billie Jean replied that if spectators didn’t watch women’s tennis it was because their matches were scheduled when most people were getting out of bed and on courts so distant that fans needed a road map to find them.
In 1971, Billie Jean decided to take this case to the court of public opinion. In the women’s locker room of Forest Hills, home of the U.S. Open, she and a few buddies sat down on the chintz-covered sofas and put together a questionnaire that they then took to the paying spectators. Among the questions: “Do you come to the U.S. Open to watch women play?” The answer was a resounding yes.
The momentum was building, but it took its time. The next week, 32 of us found ourselves in Louisville, Ky., the kickoff event in the first year of the allwomen’s Virginia Slims tennis tour. The total prize money was $20,000. It cost $2 to watch. And when we weren’t playing we were shipped to shopping malls to sit behind card tables and talk up the new tour. In my mall, approaching shoppers veered away when they saw the words Women’s Tennis. I felt like I was trying to raise money for an illegal charity.
Today, the women’s tennis tour has stops in 54 cities and there is $52 million in total prize money. As women’s sports go, it doesn’t get any bigger. The top 10 women are making small fortunes and the next 100 are earning a decent living.
But aside from the money, have things fundamentally changed? When Martina Navratilova retired in 1994, she had won more titles than any other woman-or man-in the history of the game, but she didn’t have a major endorsement to her name. Commercial sponsors balked because she did not conform to their feminine ideal. Being lesbian didn’t exactly help. Sports Illustrated, the bible of North American sport, pays ritual observance to women’s sport, but as far as featuring a woman on the cover, it helps if she’s been stabbed in the back (Monica Seles), clubbed on the knee (Nancy Kerrigan) or born to a bikini (the swimsuit issue).
If, as the Virginia Slims ad once bragged, ‘You’ve come a long way, baby,” we’ve still got a long way to go.
At some tournaments, men were making eight times as much as women. The guys who ran tennis thought this split more than fair.
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