When Serena Williams walked onto the court at the French Open, one of the people I was watching with said, “Wow!” Serena was wearing an outfit by designer Virgil Abloh that consisted of a bold black and white ensemble and a warm-up jacket emblazoned with the words: Mère, Championne, Déesse, Reine. (Mother, Champion, Goddess, Queen.)
It was a bold statement to make in the French capital. Because if Paris is known for its fashion, then its tennis tournament is also known for its stuffiness and the way its officials have sought to regulate some of the world’s best players, particularly women. Just last year, the French Open made international news after it banned an outfit that Serena had worn. In case you missed it, Serena wore a black catsuit that had been specially designed by Nike with compressive elements to help prevent blood clots, which she had suffered since pregnancy. French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli, seemingly unconcerned about Serena’s health, explained the decision to ban the catsuit with a condescending quip. “One must respect the game and the place,” he said.
Actually, one must not respect the game and the place. One must respect the woman. Which is what Serena was saying in so many words. Four to be exact: Mother, Champion, Goddess, Queen. When she stepped onto the court this year it was in proud defiance, and regardless of the tournament’s outcome, it seemed as if she had already won. Serena represents all the strong women and mothers who have to put up with the condescending attitudes and petty judgments of men who make the rules without any concern for women’s lived experience. And while it would be easy to point the finger at French tennis officials, the worst offenders are here at home.
I don’t know if the Alabama legislature has any good old boys named Bernard, but they sure act like it. Just last month, when they passed a bill that would restrict women’s access to health care, including women’s rights to control their own bodies, make their own reproductive choices, and determine their own pregnancies, they did so as a group that was almost entirely white and male. Sure, the governor who signed the bill was a woman, beholden to one of the most conservative state parties in the country, but the bill would never have made it to her desk had it not been for the men who put it there. Without concern for women’s health, the men passed a bill that would radically reduce women’s choices and potentially criminalize them for being raped, miscarrying, or simply not knowing that they were pregnant. For the record, our state legislature is not much better. Our predominantly male House of Representatives passed a bill in April that would take women’s choices away and Gov. Henry McMaster has vowed to sign it if it makes it to his desk next year.
I couldn’t help but think of these things as I watched Serena step up to the baseline. Because her expression of agency, her control over her life, her body, her wardrobe, and her message were inspiring. We don’t need to go quietly along when men ban what women need for their health. And it hardly matters whether men are banning catsuits or clinics, each is just a variation on the theme of making up rules and asserting control.
Perhaps what upsets me most is that for years I served as a professional hospital chaplain and bioethicist. I saw firsthand what it was like when women suffered ectopic pregnancies, when women’s lives were at risk, when women had been sexually assaulted, when women got news of a fetal disease or illness, and when women faced many other difficult circumstances. These represented life’s most challenging moments, and we didn’t need groups of male legislators to tell us what to do. We needed to respect the women.
The only rule we need going forward, then, is the rule of respect for women as the mothers, champions, goddesses, and queens they are. Perhaps men from Paris to Montgomery to Columbia could learn to step out of the way and simply cheer women on. Until that time, we should all reach for our Virgil Abloh ensembles or our pink-eared hats. It’s going to be a long, hard fought match.
Jeremy Rutledge is senior minister at Circular Church.