Sports

The Subtle, Insistent Feminism of Working Mother Serena Williams

Serena Williams pumps her fist at Wimbledon.
Serena Williams celebrates after beating Germany’s Julia Goerges 6–2, 6–4 in their women’s singles semifinal match on Thursday.
Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

If there was ever any doubt about the superlative nature of Serena Williams’ athletic ability, her performance at Wimbledon this month should put it to rest. Ten months after giving birth to her daughter Olympia and surviving a life-threatening pulmonary embolism, Williams has rolled off five definitive wins to make it to Saturday’s final, where she will take on Angelique Kerber as she bids to win her eighth Wimbledon singles title.

Williams’ dominance and quick comeback—she resumed training just six weeks after her C-section—has forced tennis to reckon with the ways it penalizes women who take a break from the sport to have a child. Until now, women who missed time because of pregnancy received “protected rankings” that allowed them to enter tournaments when they returned to the tour but didn’t place them in tournament brackets as seeded players. The Women’s Tennis Association drew criticism for this policy when Williams—who’d been, naturally, the No. 1 player on the WTA tour before her maternity leave—came back this year without that No. 1 next to her name, meaning she’d be forced to play top players in the early rounds. Wimbledon, which isn’t operated by the WTA, decided to compromise and give Williams a lower seed, putting her in the bracket at No. 25. The U.S. Open has also announced that going forward it will “revise the seedings if pregnancy is a factor in the current rankings of a player.” The WTA has said it will consider changing its policy, too.

Given this seeding policy, which punishes players for starting families, it’s perhaps unsurprising that mothers have traditionally been hard to find in the upper echelons of tennis. This year’s Wimbledon featured the rarity of two mothers facing off in a singles match, an occasion the Globe and Mail marked with the headline, “Serena Williams to play Evgeniya Rodina in battle of the moms at Wimbledon.” That description prompted angry feedback from readers who pointed out that no newspaper would ever describe a match between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, both fathers, as a “battle of the dads.” The content of the piece, written by Howard Fendrich of the Associated Press, was less glib, noting that too many tournaments don’t offer child care facilities.

What goes unspoken in the article is the fact that male athletes are able, and have always been able, to have children and continue on with their careers as if nothing has changed. For women who become mothers, especially for those who give birth, that’s almost never an option. The line between pointing out legitimate inequalities and ingraining reductive gender stereotypes isn’t always clear. On one hand, it’s refreshing to hear the best athlete in America come off the court and talk about the unreachable expectations placed on mothers in all industries, as reporters at Wimbledon have pressed Williams to do. On the other, focusing on Williams as a mother promotes the cultural conception that women with kids are parents first, whereas men are defined by their personal accomplishments.

Still, it’s hard to overstate the potential impact of Williams’ open embrace of the role of working mother. Since she became pregnant, Williams has been admirably candid about the emotional, logistical, and physical challenges motherhood has wrought. In a pre-Wimbledon press conference, she described how difficult it had been for her to decide to stop breastfeeding her daughter. Last week, she tweeted that she cried when she missed Olympia’s first steps because of her training schedule. Her HBO documentary miniseries, Being Serena, took viewers inches away from her face during her C-section, into the hospital room where she identified an embolism before her doctors did, and back home, wobbling in high-heeled sneakers, when she was finally released with Olympia. Though the series is a bit emotionally stiff, it includes a few powerful scenes in which Williams talks about the fear she felt when she got back on the court, wondering if she’d ever return to her former level of play, and the parallel fear that she’d fail as a mother to Olympia. These fears—and not coincidentally, the impediments Williams’ workplace imposes on mothers who re-enter the field—will be familiar to the many mothers who’ve watched in awe and delight as Williams crushed her competition these last two weeks.

Already, Williams’ prominence and defiance of tennis norms—she made headlines for wearing a killer Wakanda-inspired bodysuit at the French Open in May—has forced the sport’s gatekeepers to examine the vestiges of an even more sexist era in the sport. More than a decade after Williams’ sister Venus successfully advocated for Wimbledon to close the gap in prize money given to male and female players, the sport still retains some remarkably antiquated practices. The New York Times published a piece earlier this month on how women who’ve won Wimbledon are listed on the All England Club’s board of champions under the first initials and surnames of their husbands. That includes Billie Jean King, a lesbian who hasn’t been married to tennis executive Larry King since the 1980s but remains listed as “Mrs. L.W. King.” The Times also observed that Wimbledon umpires announce Williams’ wins by calling her “Mrs. Williams,” while men are simply called by their last names.

When the Times asked her if she’d use her husband Alexis Ohanian’s last name on the board of champions, Williams dodged the question. “It still doesn’t register that I’m married actually,” she said. “So much has happened in the past 12 months.” This response fit with Williams’ method of advancing gender equity—a subtle, within-the-system tack. To wit: Later, in a BBC interview, Williams gave a shout-out to stay-at-home mothers. “It’s tough for stay-at-home dads as well,” the reporter interjected. Williams humored him, acknowledging that “any parent” should be applauded for doing the hard work of making child care their full-time job.

The interviewer here was making a false parallel between women who aren’t employed outside the home and their stay-at-home male counterparts, who perform half as many hours of housework and caregiving each day and don’t face nearly as much discrimination if they try to get back into the workforce. Williams’ decision to politely agree may have been a function of her exhaustion and surprise—gender disparities in parenting make for a complicated and touchy topic for a post-match presser. But it also seems like she’s working to make her already-groundbreaking position as a black, feminist mother in professional tennis more digestible to viewers of a sport long distinguished by its sexism and racism. Her words matter, but the life she lives in the public eye speaks for itself, even on those occasions when she chooses to say nothing at all.