I remember 1970s and 80s advertisements for a cigarette brand, Virginia Slims. The cancer stick aimed at women was marketed with the tagline, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
Because why should only men have the fun of emphysema, lung and throat cancers?
The campaign featured mostly reed-like, white women wearing glamorous clothing who were now liberated enough to light up.
Virginia Slims sponsored the Women’s Tennis Association Tour from 1971 to 1978.
I was thinking of their slogan while watching the ASB Classic on TV last weekend. The women’s doubles semifinal was on, pitting Americans Asia Muhammad and Taylor Townsend against compatriots Cori Gauff and Catherine Mcnally.
Muhammad and Townsend won, and would later defeat 23-time grand slam winner Serena Williams and her doubles partner, Caroline Wozniacki, in the final.
What was striking watching the semifinal was the fact three women of colour (plus one white woman) were commanding the court.
Despite tennis’ legacy of elitism, black women like Serena and Venus Williams, Asia Muhammad and Taylor Townsend have shown talent plus tremendous work ethic can take a player far, no matter what he/she looks like.
Serena Williams has earned around US$90 million in prize money over her career, making her the highest-paid female tennis player. Still, she trails Novak Djokovic’s tally of $131m.
During her career, Serena has struggled to wear and say what she wanted without backlash.
An article on PBS.org in 2018 quotes Caitlin Thompson, publisher of tennis magazine Racquet, saying “traditionalists” – often white people in lucrative positions in tennis – stoke debates that distract from and diminish female talent to remind people of their power.
US Tennis Association past-president Katrina Adams said in the same article you can’t push progress as a woman, especially of colour, without knocking down constructs.
“There are always glass ceilings to break from a female’s perspective and even more so, from an African American perspective,” said Adams. “A lot of it is just because of what men have not allowed us to do over the years.”
The attitude manifests in tropes such as the Williams sisters are too loud, too flashy and too powerful. For whom?
Sexism and racism aren’t relegated to one sport, of course.
NZME reported earlier this week the 28-year-old Auckland man who admitted hurling racial insults against British cricketer Jofra Archer at Mount Maunganui’s Bay Oval last November has been banned from attending cricket matches in New Zealand for two years.
However, flashes of hope are illuminating the global sportscape.
Earlier this week in the United States, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and its players’ union reached agreement on a collective bargaining deal improving salaries, family benefits and travel accommodations. The average cash compensation will reach nearly $130,000 and top players will be able to earn upwards of $500,000.
But, as the Wall Street Journal’s Rachel Bachman points out, men’s leagues are still seeing a lot more dollars than women’s. One example: “Major League Soccer — which averaged the same number of viewers (246,000) for regular-season games on ESPN last year as the WNBA did — is losing more than $100 million annually because it’s investing in players (the average base salary in 2019 was $345,867) …”
New Zealand’s gender pay gap for female athletes is legendary: the Black Ferns, one of the first big sporting organisations in the country to pay women, gives contracted players a $20,000 retainer, plus match and assembly fees. Try housing and feeding a family on that sum, less than minimum wage.
Meanwhile, Super Rugby players can earn up to $185,000 a season, and the All Blacks, more than $1 million. Yes, the All Blacks’ season is longer, they play more overseas matches and have a much bigger audience, but 20-grand versus a million dollars?
Football New Zealand in 2018 announced a world-first pay parity agreement for the All Whites (men) and Football Ferns (women). One part of the deal relates to travel, giving women access to business class travel for flights of six hours or more, the same as their male counterparts. Apparently, neither team is making much dosh at the moment, so the contract is largely symbolic.
So much of what permeates attitudes towards women and people of colour in sport goes back decades or longer – white men wrote the rules for sport, at first assuming only those with a ‘Y’ chromosome could fully compete. The book First Ladies of Running includes story after story of women in the 60s and 70s who were denied entry to road races, even pushed off the course or had the finish line blocked by members of the ‘old guard’ whose Neanderthal brains couldn’t fathom women’s capacity for sport.
Back then, men wrote articles based on no scientific evidence whatsoever saying women shouldn’t run. Some physicians claimed running long distances would harm a woman’s reproductive organs, prevent pregnancy and cause missed periods, anaemia and varicose veins.
First Ladies author Amby Burfoot explains how runner and medical doctor Joan Ullyot dispelled these myths in her 1976 book Women’s Running, explaining chapter by chapter how each “threat” was baseless.
“These guys writing the articles at that time simply didn’t know what they were talking about. Sagging breasts? That’s just not the way breast tissue works. And if sagging breasts is such a problem, why wasn’t anyone writing about sagging testicles? They hang a lot looser than breasts.”
The women’s marathon was introduced at the summer Olympics in 1984. Men started running the event in 1896, though the distance did not become standardised until 1921. The 3000-metre women’s steeplechase wasn’t an Olympic sport until 2008, despite the fact men had been running it at the Games since 1920.
Even now, you’ll find people who question women’s abilities and fitness for sport – they’ll say a given activity – rugby, running, hockey – is too dangerous, too taxing. I suspect the odd duck or two still believes our uteruses will fall out if we play too hard or run too far.
Yes, we’ve come a long way (don’t call me baby), but we still have far to go.
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