The 23rd June 2016 will go down in history as a landmark day. Not only the frenzied start of a new period in Britain and Europe, but also the day of building a revolution. On the same day in 1972, Title IX was became US law. This legislation ensured that nobody would be denied access to federally funded educational schemes on the basis of sex. Title IX came too late for many women.
Born in California in 1943, Bille Jean King managed to find success in spite of paltry support for women’s sport. She had to learn tennis on the free public courts in Long Beach: ‘As a young girl, I quickly realized that the sport was very uniform with little to no diversity in everything from clothing to class, to race and gender.’
At 12 years old, I knew two things about my quest in life: I wanted to be the No. 1 tennis player in the world, and I wanted to use my success to change the face of our society to grant equal rights and opportunities for both men and women.
King’s steely determination gained her early success. Aged 17 she travelled to Wimbledon for the first time, where she won the doubles title while partnering Karen Hantze Susman. King went from strength to strength. In 1966 she won her first Grand Slam singles title, also at Wimbledon. She became No. 1 in the world and would go on to win a staggering 39 Grand Slam titles overall.
King was competing at a turbulent time in tennis. Amateurs and professionals were segregated by tournament. When King discovered the male players intended to form a professional organisation, they made it emphatically clear that women were excluded. Reflecting on this period, she notes widespread attitudes: Nobody would even pay a dime to watch you girls, you birds.
In 1968 she won her third championship title at Wimbledon. The men’s winner, Rod Laver, won £2,000 while King won a mere £750. Enough was enough.
So began the women’s tour. King’s then husband, attorney Larry King, developed the idea of a professional tour for women and helped to coordinate a group of top women players. Nine women, including King, signed $1 contracts with World Tennis publisher Gladys Heldman to compete in a women’s tour. Despite the threat of suspension from prized competitions, they threw caution to the wind, and to the establishment.
Out of the success of the series the ‘renegade’ nine created, King founded the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973. This united women’s professional tennis and at the US Open, for the first time, equal prize money was offered to men and women. It was not until 2000 that the Australian Open would follow suit, and a shocking 2007 that Roland Garros and Wimbledon redressed the balance.
As the beginnings of economic equality blossomed, within weeks King was also challenging cultural attitudes towards the women’s game. At the now legendary Battle of the Sexes, she took on former Grand Slam champion Bobby Riggs in front of 30,000 spectators with a worldwide audience of approximately 50 million in 37 countries. King beat Riggs in a convincing 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. As the Daily News commented at the time, ‘You could also, appropriately, buy a huge slab of beef for 1.75 a few yards from where Billie Jean was carving up the world’s most celebrated male chauvinist pig.’
I knew it was about social change… If you can see it you can be it.
After eclipsing just about every record, King continues to work for women’s sport and also as an advocate for the LGBT community. “Outed” against her will in 1981 while still married to husband Larry, she has spoken about the emotional drain and financial loss it had on her. She founded the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974 and the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative in 2014. These seek to provide greater access to the tools of success, whether in sports or broader fields.
I think we all have an obligation to continue to keep moving the needle forward. Always.
Debates around gender have raged in the sporting world to this day. This year men’s world number one Novak Djokovic caused a storm by suggesting that men should be paid more than women players because they attract more crowds. Billie Jean King was and continues to be a trailblazer in an environment that still fails to fully accept the worth of women.
Progress has undoubtedly been made and King was at the heart of that change. Grand Slam champion Chris Evert agrees: “Every woman athlete should thank her personally for building up her sport, confidence and empowering women.” King’s unerring appetite for action continues to shape the world into a more equal one and she is keen for progress to persist. In her words, ‘There’s no question, that every generation has the chance to make it better.’
References include: Kira Cochrane. 2013. Billie Jean King: ‘It’s not about the money. It’s about the equality message’. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2013/jun/23/billie-jean-king-equality-message. [Accessed 24 June 2016]. / Dave Hirshey. 1973. Billie Jean King beats Bobby Riggs in ‘Battle of the Sexes’. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/billie-jean-wins-straight-sets-riggs-1973-article-1.2355262. [Accessed 24 June 2016]. / Billie Jean King. 2012. Billie Jean King: Keep successful Title IX strong. [ONLINE] Available at: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/story/2012-06-22/billie-jean-king-title-ix-women-sports/55762168/1. [Accessed 24 June 2016]. / Billie Jean King. 2015. This tennis icon paved the way for women in sports. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/billie_jean_king_this_tennis_icon_paved_the_way_for_women_in_sports. [Accessed 24 June 2016]. ©The Heroine Collective 2015 – Present, All Rights Reserved.