Deciding that “you can’t change anything with silence,” Allyson Felix—the most decorated U.S. track and field athlete in history—made headlines in 2019 for publicly challenging Nike with discrimination against female athletes who become mothers. Her action led to a public outcry, Congressional inquiry, and new maternity protections from Nike and other companies.
This month, she announced that 2022 will be her final season as a competitor – and she’ll be running for women and a better future for her daughter.
Here are highlights from her conversation about the power of speaking out with Erica Williams Simon at the 2021 Massachusetts Conference for Women.
Erica Williams Simon. There was actually a large part, if not the majority of your life and career where you felt as if it was too risky for you to speak up, to use your voice to advocate for yourself. And I think many of us can relate to feeling as if there is a cost to speaking up, a cost to advocating. But what was the cost to you of not being able to be your full self for so long, of being silent?
Allyson Felix. It’s been such a journey to get to a place where I can speak out. And for the longest time, I felt like my job is to win medals, my job is to run fast, and nobody really cared about anything else as long as I’m getting that done. And I think it just took a lot of real-life experiences to give me that courage. You know, going through becoming a mother and some of the difficulty that I went through with my former sponsor, and all of those things: They just made me understand the weight of this platform and that there actually is power in speaking your truth and that things can come from that.
Simon. In 2019, you wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, speaking out against, or really, maybe against is a strong word, but taking on Nike for what you considered discrimination. What made you decide that was the time to speak up?
Felix. Well, I was terrified to speak up. Let’s start there. I was absolutely scared. I was a very private person. And so going through this whole ordeal was way outside of my comfort zone. But what was happening was ever since I became a professional athlete, which was 17 years old, I had seen women in my sport become mothers and they would either hide their pregnancies. They would either have to quit or have their contracts paused. And I was going through the same thing.
It came to a place where they were willing to do it for me, but not for everyone else and not to set that precedent. But that wasn’t going to work. I thought about my daughter and did not want her to fight the same fight. And so, I just deeply believed that it was the right thing to do, and I felt compelled to do it.
Simon. Now, in your case, there were results. Nike and three other companies also followed suit and changed those policies for women. But for many of us, we don’t see those results as quickly or as obviously and clearly. What do you say to women who are like, “I’m just so tired of fighting this fight”?
Felix. I would say start small. It can feel very big, some of these issues that we’re tackling. It can feel like a lot to take it all on, but I think we can small in our own circles, we can have our own conversations, bring them to the forefront. We can bring things to the table when things aren’t going the way that they should. I think for far too long, we sat back and just accepted some of these [gender inequities] and it’s time to come forward. Also, there is power in the collective. And when we do come forward, things can happen. In some instances, it can happen quickly. So, I think we have to understand that our voice does have power.
Simon. How did you determine what your worth was?
Felix. It was definitely a journey. And I think when things got really difficult, it even became hard for me to really understand my worth because when you’re in a position where a company is saying, “This is your value.” It can be hard to mix that up with, “Well, maybe that is my worth. Maybe I am not really worthy. Maybe I, you know, can’t do this anymore.” And it started to make me think twice. I had to stop myself from that and to really surround myself with the people who were going to build me up, people who knew my true worth and my true value and hold firm to that. And I would say it goes back to, honestly, my parents teaching me my value and that it’s all about character and integrity and all of those things and holding firm.