35 years ago today, Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in the tennis match match that was promoted as “The Battle of the Sexes”.
I was 8 years old in 1973. I loved tennis. I knew by the time I was 11 or 12 that I’d never be good; I didn’t have the speed or the coordination. It didn’t matter, though; I still loved to play. I loved hitting a ball against the brick wall down the street from my house. I loved playing on the summer team at the Rec center in our neighborhood, and in the juniors tournaments in Fairmount Park (during which I was usually eliminated in the first round). I loved my Wilson Chris Evert racket (wood!) that I’d gotten as a Christmas present. And I LOVED the women’s tennis tour.
I was a reasonably girly girl. Not a cheerleader or a pageant aspirant, but not what anyone would call a “tomboy” (I hate that word. When I publish my list of proscribed words, that one will be prominently featured). I liked clothes, I worried about my hair, I wanted my ears pierced (my mother didn’t allow this until I was 15). I admired stylish, beautiful Chris Evert, with her shining blond ponytail and diamond bracelets sparkling on tanned arms. I pretended I was adorable Tracy Austin, who was my age. But Billie Jean King was always my favorite. She was different from the other women on the tennis tour. She wasn’t elegant or fashionable; she wasn’t ethereal or regal, but she was beautiful and radiant, strong and fierce.
I lived in a rowhouse in a blue-collar Philadelphia neighborhood and attended a parish school with all of the other children of secretaries and sheet metal workers. I’m not sure that I or any of my friends would even have noticed tennis had it not been for Billie Jean. Like the late Arthur Ashe, she wanted to democratize tennis, take it away from the country club and to put it in the public parks. As important as this was, however, it didn’t compare to what she did for girls and women of all classes. Billie Jean King was THE pioneer of the then-radical notion that female athletes should make the same money as male athletes. How obvious does it seem today that the men’s and women’s winners at Wimbledon or the US Open should earn the same prize money? It wasn’t even remotely obvious 35 years ago. It was ridiculous. Billie Jean King fought a fearless and honorable fight for simple fairness for women athletes, and the Battle of the Sexes was a landmark event for women’s sports and for feminism. She endured relentless scrutiny, mockery (not just from Riggs, who I hated) and bravely faced an almost unwinnable situation. She couldn’t lose to Riggs; that would have proven his mean little point about the inferiority of women athletes (he’d already easily beaten Margaret Court). And she couldn’t win just a little bit, or everyone would say that the match was skewed in her favor or that she had the advantage of youth. So she crushed Riggs, winning so decisively that critics were silenced into grudging respect.
All of this would have been enough, but Billie Jean did something more. She showed girls like me that things were possible, even likely, no matter where you lived, or who your parents were, or whether or not you had the right hair or clothes. My friends and I, daughters of working class families, knew we couldn’t really aspire to Chris Evert’s cool elegance and beauty, but we could all aspire to be Billie Jean. She looked like our older sisters or cousins. We could be like her if we tried; we could be fearless, and strong, and really good at something. We could kick ass and take names and still look cute in a tennis dress. From me, and from every girl who was inspired by Billie Jean: Thank you, and happy anniversary. Keep kicking ass and taking names.