12 Days of Feminists: Serena Williams

This year, we're recognizing the women who showed up, raised their voices and fought for change. Here, Bee Quammie celebrates tennis powerhouse, badass mama and feminist queen Serena Williams

Serena Williams in a black bodysuit

(Photo: Getty Images; Photo illustration: Joel Louzado)

When it comes to powerful feminists who inspired us in 2018, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’s made more of an impact than Serena Williams. In addition to being the tennis world’s biggest star (and one of the best athletes ever), the wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, business mogul and philanthropist also spent this year giving us a play-by-play of how to live a life guided by feminism.

Even if you aren’t a tennis fan, you probably heard about Williams’ infamous moment at her US Open Women’s Finals match against Naomi Osaka. Umpire Carlos Ramos issued a number of violations against her, and Williams didn’t hold back from defending herself. In her back and forth with Ramos, she passionately stood up for herself—and in her post-game commentary, she called out the sport’s inherent sexism and explained that she wasn’t just fighting for herself, but for the women who’ll come after her. Some outlets, like Australia’s Herald Sun, gleefully tried to knock Williams down a peg for showing emotion (complete with disgustingly racist and sexist words and imagery), but the criticism paled in comparison to the momentum she built. This year, a spotlight was directed at the disparities between men and women in the tennis world, from the ways in which emotional outbursts are regarded to the debates around how maternity leave affects players’ rankings, and it was all thanks to Serena Williams.

(Photo: GIPHY)

And since we’re talking about feminism, let’s not forget that her activism has been just as impactful off the court.

Since giving birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian, Jr., Williams has become increasingly vocal about motherhood—and though her fame and wealth mean her life looks very different from a lot of ours, so much of what she shared transcends dollars and cents. U.S.-based statistics show that Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related issues than white women, regardless of education or socioeconomic status, and at least one study has shown that medical students believe Black people feel less pain than white people. Earlier this year, Williams shared her traumatic birth story, which included an emergency C-section, pulmonary embolism, popped C-section wound and multiple surgical procedures. After her ordeal, Williams started to speak up for women who don’t have the same access she does, and urged the medical community to take better care of Black women, noting that “Doctors aren’t listening to us.”

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Last week was not easy for me. Not only was I accepting some tough personal stuff, but I just was in a funk. Mostly, I felt like I was not a good mom. I read several articles that said postpartum emotions can last up to 3 years if not dealt with. I like communication best. Talking things through with my mom, my sisters, my friends let me know that my feelings are totally normal. It’s totally normal to feel like I’m not doing enough for my baby. We have all been there. I work a lot, I train, and I’m trying to be the best athlete I can be. However, that means although I have been with her every day of her life, I’m not around as much as I would like to be. Most of you moms deal with the same thing. Whether stay-at-home or working, finding that balance with kids is a true art. You are the true heroes. I’m here to say: if you are having a rough day or week–it’s ok–I am, too!!! There’s always tomm!

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Speaking of motherhood, Williams been very open about her postpartum emotional state and how fragile it can be. And she’s been very transparent about how she balance parenting and career, letting everyone know that sometimes the answer to “How does she do it all?” is “I struggle.” Even though she lost at Wimbledon, she had the most triumphant moment when she dedicated her game to her new tribe. “To all the moms out there, I was playing for you today. I tried,” she said. Women all over the globe have been inspired to open up and make more noise about their own experiences, making changes that ripple through individual and systemic levels. I don’t know if Williams’ words and actions will directly lead to concrete changes that make balancing motherhood and career easier, at least in the tennis world. Nor do I know if medical professionals will take her advice and make better efforts to listen to Black women. But I do know that at least some women are feeling less isolated after seeing how vulnerable Williams has been, and that’s important, too.

One of the most important aspects of feminism, especially from an intersectional lens, is to be aware of how different issues and oppressions affect women—even if they don’t directly affect us individually. With her platform this year, Williams has laid out a game plan of how you support women whose chains are different from your own. Combining her love of fashion with doing good, Williams recently partnered with Allstate Foundation’s Purple Purse initiative, designing a new backpack and bag charm to raise awareness of domestic violence and financial abuse. She also joined the “I Touch Myself” campaign, encouraging women to do their regular self-checks for breast cancer awareness. From building schools in Jamaica and Kenya that address gender disparity in education to sitting on the board for Survey Monkey to ensure more women get jobs in Silicon Valley, Williams showed us in 2018 how a feminist gets sh*t done.

(Photo: GIPHY)

Inspired by the feminists who came before her like Billie Jean King and her mom, Oracene Price, Williams is walking in their footsteps while blazing a new path for her own daughter to follow. “I’m fighting for women’s rights and women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff,” said Williams after the infamous US Open finals. Luckily for us all, she’s taken that fight beyond tennis and has ignited a feminist flame that burns from classrooms in Kenya to doctor’s offices in the U.S.—and, we’re pretty sure it’s in the heart of a little girl named Olympia, too.

Thank you for pushing yourself to be the best, in so many ways, Serena. We’re all better for it.

More from FLARE’s ‘12 Days of Feminists’ series:

Day 1: Chrystia Freeland
Day 2: Constance Wu
Day 3: Tracee Ellis Ross
Day 4: Vivek Shraya
Day 5: Amber Tamblyn
Day 6: Lizzo
Day 7: Dr. Christine Blasey Ford

Day 8: Meghan Markle