More than 700 women gathered to listen to Venus Williams talk about equal pay, the incredible women in her life, and where she sees herself in the future – although you wouldn’t know it from tabloid headlines.
Over the weekend, Venus Williams – one of the “best athletes of all time, champion for equal pay, and now badass entrepreneur”, to quote CEO Jaclyn Johnson – delivered a powerful keynote speech at Create & Cultivate’s Vision Summit in Miami.
And, in a Q&A facilitated by Johnson, Venus was asked to complete the sentence “A woman whose career I admire is…”
She responded simply: “Serena Williams.”
Going on to address how she and Serena “motivate each other” both as athletes and as business owners, Venus added that there has never been cause for jealousy. Why? Because, “as a sister, when they’re doing something it’s your own success, too”.
The tennis pro also made a point of paying homage to her sister, Isha Price, noting that “she’s always saving my life.”
“We’re a tight-knit family,” she said. “We were taught that your sisters are your best friends.”
It was a beautiful commentary on sisterhood – one that put paid to that ongoing misogynistic narrative which suggests that successful women just can’t get along.
Rather than listen to what the tennis pro had to say, though, many tabloids decided to focus on… well, on what Venus wore to the event. Take, for instance, this headline by the (you guessed it) Daily Mail: “Venus Williams wows in plunging camel-coloured maxi dress”.
It’s only fair to note that the article beneath that ridiculous headline thoughtfully explains that Venus wasn’t just wearing that gown for fun. In fact, it carefully explained the purpose of the summit, introduced the women gathered there, recalled Venus’ past achievements, and even included a quote or two from her talk, too (“Believe in yourself even when you don’t… because faking it actually works”).
Unfortunately, though, the promise of a “plunging” gown in a headline tends to lure in the sort of readers who aren’t necessarily there for the inspiring quotes: they’re there for the pictures, plain and simple. And that much is clear in the comments section of this DM article in question, as not one person has commented on what Venus – who launched her own activewear company, EleVen, in 2007 – had to say for herself at the event.
“Venus looks BEAUTIFUL,” wrote one.
Another – somewhat ironically, when you consider the point of Venus’ message of women supporting other women – added: “Venus has more elegance than Serena.”
It almost goes without saying that this sort of commentary is primarily reserved for women, and it will always be: nobody ever looks at Andy Murray and remarks on his outfit. In fact, in 2014, a male TV presenter wore the same suit every day for a year to see if anybody would notice (spoilers: they did not).
Women, however, are constantly judged against impossible beauty and sartorial standards. We are measured in terms of cup size, dress size, weight and thigh circumference, hair colour (woe betide any woman who dares bare her greys), and make-up application (we’re slammed for applying it on the train, for applying too much, and for not applying it at all). And, by reducing a woman’s worth down to her appearance, we slyly diminish her role and her value as a contributor to society.
Venus Williams is a bonafide tennis superstar. She delivered a powerful talk on confidence and the sisterhood. And yet, despite all of that, it was her dress – and nothing else – that made headlines in the mainstream media. That is a very big problem. And it’s up to us to speak out against this rampant sexism, because when we make our voices heard, we help to ensure that others’ are, too.