Former First Lady Michelle Obama encouraged women in sports, and in general, to speak out against the pay gap while speaking at the U.S. Open. (Credit: Michelle Obama Twitter account)

The latest, loudest advocate for women in sports? A former First Lady.

Michelle Obama came out swinging for equal pay in sports at the 2023 U.S. Open this week, stating that persistent pay gaps across industries and borders are about more than money – they’re indicative of “how women are seen and valued in this world.”

She made the comment during a rousing speech given in honor of tennis great Billie Jean King, a long-time fighter for equitable treatment for women athletes herself. Obama pointed to King’s own bravery in fighting for her worth as a model for how to combat the still-ongoing trend. 

After all, King is the reason pay parity now exists at the U.S. Open, the best-selling author additionally noted. Just over 50 years ago, King told organizers that she and her fellow women players would refuse to return to play if the tournament continued to dole out larger prizes to male victors. At the time, men were taking home $15,000 more for their wins.

“Billie Jean had a choice: She could put her head down, keep winning tournament after tournament, and just accept whatever check she was given,” Obama said. “Or she could dig deep and break serve. She could make a stand.”

She added: “If you know Billie Jean, you know what she chose. … And thankfully, the U.S. Open had the guts to listen.”

Indeed, this year’s winners of the men’s and women’s tournaments will take home $3 million each. Obama pointed to this as exemplary – noting that brave individuals need to speak up in favor of pay equity, and that those in charge need to heed those words.

“We can sit by silently and hope that someone else will fight our battles. Or we can make our own stand,” Obama told the crowd. “We can use whatever platforms we have to speak out and fight to protect the progress we’ve made and level the playing field for our daughters and their daughters.”

The pay gap continues to harm women both in and outside of the sports world. Women athletes, overall, earn about 13% less than their male counterparts. Zooming out to look at all working women in the U.S., research shows that they earn, on average, just over 15% less than working men. It’s a smaller margin than ever before, to be sure. But an inequity remains all the same – and for women of color, it’s still worse.

To keep us moving in the right direction, Obama added, action is also needed, as well as words.

She noted, “Sadly, we have seen how quickly progress like this can be taken away if we are not mindful and vigilant. If we do not keep remembering, advocating, organizing, speaking out – and yes, voting.”