Althea Gibson's induction into the US Open Court of Champions this week, on the 50th anniversary of her historic title victory, was inspiring. The Opening Night Tribute, to celebrate living African-American women who have also broken barriers in sports, entertainment, politics and the arts, was impressive. Venus and Serena Williams paid fitting tribute to Gibson by winning their opening night matches. Serena Williams became the first African-American woman since Gibson to win the US Open in 1999. The next year, Venus Williams was the first African-American woman since Gibson to win Wimbledon.
However, Alice Marble's significant role, as the leading public proponent and catalyst for Althea Gibson to break the color barrier in U.S. tennis, should not be overlooked. Women's contributions are often not properly credited in history and sports books and media coverage. Researching my Women in History and Making History Today -- 365-Days-A-Year Database and A WOMAN'S BOOK OF DAYS, I've confirmed that less than ten percent of the references in new history textbooks are about women. "Anonymous" may be a woman!
Who was Alice Marble, you may rightfully ask? Alice Marble was the white tennis player who won the U.S. singles titles four times and Wimbledon in 1939. She was ranked number one in the world, 1936-1940, and was named the AP Female Athlete of the year in 1939 and 1940. Marble broke world records to become the first woman to win both Wimbledon and the US Open singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles in the same year, 1939. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1964, the winner of 12 US Open and five Wimbledon titles.
More importantly, and integral to the Althea Gibson story, Marble was the first to publicly address the sport's segregation practices and challenge the establishment. She wrote her historic July 1, 1950 editorial in American Tennis Magazine. Marble denounced the all-white U.S. Lawn Tennis Association's policy of excluding African-Americans from competition. She exhorted, "If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it's also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites. If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it's only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts."
As a result of Marble's courageous and tenacious editorial, and her well-respected position, Gibson, 23, was invited to play in the 1950 U.S National Championships (now the US Open) and won the championship that year. Thus, she became the first African-American player, man or woman, to compete in a Grand Slam event. In 1957, she became the first African-American to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals and the first to be named the AP Female Athlete of the Year.
Alice Marble also was a fashion trendsetter. She dared to wear white shorts on the court in 1932, instead of the customary long skirt and restrictive, heavy clothing of the times. Such a fashion statement was considered outrageous, until function and practicality were accepted in female sports attire and ultimately revolutionized the standards for women's casual clothing.
This year has marked important milestones for women tennis champions. For years, I've lauded Billie Jean King's often-solitary crusade for equal prize pay, in my A Woman's Place in the 21st Century speeches around the country and Letters to the Editor (New York Times, September 7, 2001). Following her 1972 US Open win, King threatened to boycott (girlcott?) the event the next year, unless the female champion received the same award as the male winner. Hence, the USTA led the Grand Slam tournaments in prize parity since 1973. This year's women's and men's singles champion will earn $1.4 million each, plus possible $1 million bonus prize.
Wimbledon finally joined the other Grand Slam events and allowed the women winners to crack the grass ceiling. Venus Williams won her fourth Wimbledon title, and the first equal prize in 123 years (approximately $1.3 million), in July. She publicly acknowledged Billie Jean King for leading the equal prize campaign.
The media frequently promote a Mean Girls catfight mentality, by highlighting negative role models and publicizing bad behavior. To the contrary, in my own speeches and writings, the positive messages of empowerment are: "Celebrate Women Every Day!" and "Women Support Women!"
For example, in 1960, when Billie Jean King was sixteen years old and ranked nineteenth in the country, she had an opportunity to work with Alice Marble as her coach every weekend. Serena and Venus Williams appreciated Althea Gibson's motivational telephone talks and cited her achievements.
Remembering history - and following the mentoring tradition set by Alice Marble to Althea Gibson to Billie Jean King to the current players -- leads me to propose a monumental tribute at the US Open to these three women. Their lasting legacy represents solidarity, support and sisterhood. I foresee a plaque signifying: "Women Champions -- Champions for Women." All three tennis pioneers came from humble backgrounds, played on public courts, surmounted personal and professional challenges and public scrutiny, to empower future women players.
Certainly, I invite your ideas on how to honor these distinguished role models who have served us so well -- on and off the court.