Most First Women To. . .help those who follow them, but some women fight battles that improve whole classes of women. Billie Jean King was a flagbearer for all girls who love athletics.
Billie Jean King’s tennis career spans the decades of the 1960’s and 1970’s, just as American women were finding their voices and demanding more options. When she won Wimbledon in 1968 she received £750 in prize money while the male competitor, Rod Laver, received £2,000. Relying on her skill and popularity, she initiated a campaign for equal prize money for men and women.
In 1971 King was the first woman athlete, in any sport, to earn $100,000 in prize money, an achievement so significant that President Nixon called to congratulate her. In 1972, when she received $15,000 less than Ilie Nastase for winning the U.S. Open, she said she would not participate again unless the prize money was equal. The following year, the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money to men and women.
That same year King founded the Women’s Tennis Association and was its first president. She also competed in a match dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.” Challenged by former tennis star Bobby Rigg’s claim that women played an inferior game of tennis, she agreed to play a winner-takes-all match against Riggs in the Houston Astrodome. King won in straight sets. The London Sunday Times called it “the drop shot and volley heard around the world.” By 1975 Seventeen magazine’s readers named Billie Jean King the most admired woman in the world.
Her most courageous moment, however, may have been in 1981 when, against the advice of her publicist and lawyer, she “came out.” Within twenty-four hours she had lost every single endorsement. By 1990, as times had changed, Time magazine named her one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.” There were three male athletes on the list: Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Muhammad Ali. There was only one woman athlete: Billie Jean King.
King was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1990. In 2006 the USTA National Tennis Center in New York City was renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. In 2009 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She continues to advocate for gender equity in sports.
Billie Jean King talks about women’s rights in sports: http://www.makers.com/billie-jean-king WARNING: There is an annoying ten-second nursery-rhyme-like tune that interrupts the interview and scrambles your brain. Fortunately, there is a count down and you can mute the sound for those ads.
Books by Billie Jean King:
Billie Jean (1974, with Kim Chapin)
The Autobiography of Billie Jean King (1982 with Frank Deford)
We Have Come a Long Way: The Story of Women’s Tennis (1988, with Cynthia Starr)
Pressure is a Privilege: Lessons I’ve learned from Life and the Battle of the Sexes (2008, with Christine Brennan)
QUESTION OF THE WEEK:
In high school I played half-court basketball because “girls do not have the stamina for full-court basketball.” Did you experience discrimination when playing sports?