Thursday marked a watershed event for women’s tennis. After 123 years of discriminating against women through the unequal distribution of prize money, the Committee of the All England Lawn and Tennis Club voted to award the men’s and women’s Wimbledon Champions equal prize money for the 2007 tournament and onwards.
While I would love to sit back and revel in how far female athletes have come, I can’t help but wonder why, after 123 years, did the “Committee” finally agree to equal prize money? They were not swayed in 1968 when the US Open leveled its purses. They were not swayed when the Australian (1968) and French Open (2006) finally recognized the need for equality. They were not convinced by the repeated appeals of former Wimbledon Champions Billie Jean King or Venus Williams. So what was it that made them acquiesce to the call that had been so long ignored?
Club Chairman, Tim Phillips, stated that social factors outside of the world of sport contributed to the private club’s move toward equality. Yet, in the same New York Times article, Phillips noted that ultimately the decision was based on economics. Up until 2006 he believed that good business dictated an unequal distribution of prize money. He suggested that the small (5% or $53,000) difference was insignificant and women actually had the potential to make more money than men because “they still play doubles.” What Phillips is missing, besides the fact that $53,000 is a lot of money and that men can play doubles too, is that the issue is not entirely financial. While the actual dollars would certainly be appreciated, the recognition that a woman is no less a champion than a man is, might be even more appreciated than the cash.
However, in 2007, the economic benefits of equal prize money finally outweighed the drawbacks. So, while it would be wonderful to read Wimbledon’s decision as a watershed moment for all women that is reflective of a society that views men and women as equals, Phillips comments clearly demonstrate that not to be the case. “There are two ways of looking at it,” Phillips said. “One is that it is an equal right and entitlement and the other is that in the sports and entertainment business, remuneration is driven by the market and not by your gender, and we happen to take that view.” So, we can choose to believe that Wimbledon voted to award equal prize money because it was the right thing to do. Or, we can dig a little bit deeper and uncover the sad reality that even gender equity is driven by economic interests.