ATHLETE, FASHIONISTA, BUSINESSWOMAN, AND ROLE MODEL, Serena Williams is a feminist icon. She embodies authentic, innate feminism with confidence, physical and mental strength, and indomitable spirit. Living in the spotlight has not diminished her sense of self, or forced her into any boxes reserved for women, black people, or athletes. The only boundaries she knows are the lines on the 78’ x 36’ tennis court.
Dominance in Sport
Serena Williams has dominated tennis for over a decade, achieved 22 Grand Slams, and recently celebrated her 308th win. She plays hard, both physically and mentally. Her fire follows her to the court, escapes in grunts, and spreads to viewers who can’t help but cheer her on. Playing a sport that was never meant for black women, Williams fought her way to the top. She brought inimitable personality and drive to the game, holding herself accountable, never making excuses. She is unapologetically herself, and refuses to craft a more relatable, likable image.
Sports Illustrated named Serena Williams 2015 Sportsperson of the Year, recognizing her journey from a three-year-old girl learning to play tennis to becoming the one to beat. Serena showed gratitude and grace in her humor-filled acceptance speech. She deliberately emphasized the title of Sportsperson of the Year — a theme she took into 2015, refusing to allow the media to gender her success.
“One of the greatest female athletes of all time?
I prefer the words ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time.”
Personality and Style
For decades, the Williams sisters have rocked tennis court fashion like no one else ever has or could. From color combinations to varied cuts and lengths, they dared to be different. Serena has worn denim and leather, blazers and bustiers, micro-minis and ruffles, seemingly unaffected by wardrobe criticism. She has owned both her style and her body, never conforming to tennis norms, and she now has a clothing line. She embraces the juxtaposition of a muscular body and sexy clothing, challenging beauty ideals and shattering restrictions around femininity.
The highest-earning female athlete, Williams is a businesswoman. She balances tennis with endorsement deals — most notably with Chase Bank and Nike. She is not shy about her accomplishments and, with a net worth of $150 million, does not allow anyone to speak disparagingly about her work and success.
“We all know who the real number one is. Quite frankly, I’m the best in the world.”
– Serena Williams
Many have publicly scrutinized Serena Williams’ body, uncomfortable with her size and strength. In the face of this criticism, Williams shows her strength does not end with her body. She wears confidence like a second skin, unabashedly showing her muscles and curves. She gives no credence to suggestions that she is not a woman, embracing “feminine” and “masculine” qualities without prejudice.
Serena Williams is intentional in actions responding to social issues around gender, race, and education. The Serena Williams Fund focuses on equal access to education and has built two schools in Kenya. Tied to her 2015 return to Indian Wells, she raised $100,000 for the Equal Justice Initiative, which provides legal representation for wrongfully convicted black men. Also in 2015, she took an online history of civil rights course, and wrote an essay in Wired, calling on Silicon Valley to hire more women.
In media relations, Serena Williams has an honest, matter-of-fact approach. She does not sugarcoat her answers or spare journalists criticism. She exercises her agency by refusing some questions. In September 2015, she easily shut down a reporter who questioned her unsmiling disposition.
Serena Williams is a gift to 21st-century women. She eschews labels of femininity and masculinity, balancing athleticism and strength with humanity. She is a role model to young athletes like Gabby Douglas, showing the power of self assurance and authenticity, even in the face of criticism. She has taught women that they don’t have to be soft, skinny, or smiling. They don’t need to be polite, poised, or perfect. Because of Serena, many women know they can be powerful and have a thirst for winning. Women don’t have to choose between strong and sexy, and can own and celebrate every part of their being without apology.
I’m really exciting. I smile a lot, I will a lot, and I’m really sexy.
– Serena Williams
Cover photo: Serena Williams at 2013 Us Open (Image credit: Edwin Martinez/Flickr)