October 12, 2018
Serena Williams did not know that black women are three-to-four times more likely to die during childbirth than their white counterparts – at least not until she experienced complications while giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia, a little more than a year ago.
"I did some research and I was alarmed that our black mothers are not being taken care of," the tennis star told some 10,000 women Friday at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women in Philadelphia. "It's in this country that is supposed to be so technologically advanced. Why are we treating out mothers like this?"
Williams, 37, said she was grateful to have a "wonderful female doctor" as she experienced a pulmonary embolism and blood clots in her lungs, which forced her to undergo a cesarean-section. But the disparity in health outcomes between black and white mothers astounded her.
"It's really unacceptable," said Williams, who has spoken openly about the challenges of being a new mother. "I feel like if I can help save lives – that's one of the best things that you can do."
Williams joined moderator Ellen McGirt, a senior editor at Fortune Magazine, for a 35-minute discussion at the conference, held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. She addressed a variety of subjects, including her status as an inspiration for working mothers.
In addition to being the best in her sport, Williams has launched a fashion line and will co-chair the Met Gala next year. She has been active in philanthropy. Now, she is trying to the best mother to her daughter.
"I wasn't trying to be this vessel and this person to speak out," Williams said. "I've always really been authentic. ... That's what it is. It kind of all came naturally."
Yet her much-heralded return to tennis was not as easy as it seemed. And Williams – who has won 39 major tennis titles, including a record 23 Grand Slam singles championships – admitted she experienced all sorts of doubts.
"I feel like because I have this opportunity to use my voice, it's very important to use my voice." – Serena Williams
Her last Grand Slam win came at the Australian Open in January 2017 – when she was pregnant with Alexis Olympia. She gave birth on September 1. Seven months later, she was back on the court at the BNP Paribas Open.
Her husband, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, offered Williams some encouragement by showcasing his support on four billboards along the California route she drove to the tournament. The first three billboards spelled out "Greatest Momma of All Time." The fourth one featured a picture of Serena and their baby with the inscription "Serena Williams: G.M.O.A.T - Alexis Jr. + Sr."
"It was so sweet," Williams said. "I always have these insecurities that I'm not good enough as a mom. We all go through these different emotions that we all don't feel comfortable talking about. But I think we should."
Throughout her career, Williams has used her platform to address a variety of societal issues. She has helped fund a school in Kenya, raised money for earthquake victims in Haiti and launched the Yetunde Price Resource Center, which helps people harmed by community violence.
She also has supported Black Lives Matter and advocated for women's rights. On Friday, she took the stage wearing a self-designed shirt that read "Be Seen Be Heard."
"It hasn't been easy being a black tennis player in a sport that black people typically didn't play," she said. "There was no manual for that, really. My sister, Venus, obviously came a year before me. She opened so many doors for me and pushed a lot of boundaries."
Williams said she has come to view such obstacles as brick walls. Initially, the wall is difficult to push. But in time, she said, it will budge and, eventually, the wall will topple.
Earlier this year, Williams said she spoke with Nike chief executive Mark Foster after the athletic apparel company was accused of fostering sexual harassment and discriminating against women.
Williams, who has endorsement deals with Nike, called Foster a friend, but said the conversation "was really intense and it got uncomfortable." But she noted the company has since launched a new diversity inclusion program, saying it has changed a lot internally.
"I feel like because I have this opportunity to use my voice, it's very important to use my voice," Williams said.
Williams also spent time Friday advocating for Purple Purse – a project that seeks to financially empower women who are being domestically abused – and discussed her appearance in a breast cancer awareness video, in which see sings.
"I was like OK, I'm not a singer," Williams said laughing. "Anyway, long story short – it's a great ad. ... It is amazing what early detection can do. It can change your life. I thought it was really important to do that."
Williams wrapped up the conversation by saying she wants her daughter to grow up in a world where women actively support other women. She wants her to be kind, humble and "the biggest supporter of women."
"I think it's really important to support your fellow women," Williams said. "I've said this a million times. The success of another woman should be the inspiration to the next."