How she humbled a male athlete’s ego in a post-second-wave feminist climate
Billie Jean King is a former American tennis player and six-time Wimbledon champion. Active from the 1970s to the 1990s, she also won seven Federation Cups, the international team competition for women’s tennis, now named after her. She is considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time.
Despite all of this, King is mostly remembered for a match she played against a 55-year-old man when she was 29.
Dubbed the ‘Battle of the Sexes,’ the match was initiated by top men’s tennis player Bobby Riggs, who claimed “there’s no way a woman can play tennis with a good man tennis player.”
Riggs, who played in the 1930s and 1940s, said he could beat any woman in tennis and challenged King to play for $100,000 on Sept. 20, 1973.
King, who campaigned for gender equality in women’s sports, first rejected the challenge. However, after Riggs challenged and beat Margaret Court, she accepted.
Coming out of the second-wave feminist movement, one that focused on equality and discrimination, this match held important cultural significance on the gender politics that reflected the social climate at the time.
Riggs said it best himself in a Tonight Show interview, where he said that he planned to “set back [the] women’s lib movement about another 20 years.”
When asked by host Johnny Carson if he liked women, Riggs replied “I like them real good in the bedroom, the kitchen and when they bring you the slippers and the pipe.” Interrupted by a mix of cheers and boos, he continued and said: “I really think the best way to handle women is to keep them pregnant and this way, they don’t worry about getting out in the men’s world and competing for jobs and trying to get equal money and all that baloney.”
Although some might say that Riggs was just playing into a character to bring hype to the game, we cannot deny that comments like these would not pass on any of today’s prime-time television talk shows, jokes or not.
Whether an intimidation tactic or not, it worked as King said “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”
90 million viewers tuned in from 37 countries to watch the Battle of the Sexes go down in Houston Astrodome. To put it into perspective, the Super Bowl that year received 53 million viewers on average.
It was in front of this large audience that King beat Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, which makes this statement by Riggs even more delightful: “Would you believe that she said she could take the pressure and play for the money as well as I can?” Yes, Bobby, yes, she can.
This was more than just a tennis match — it was a significant cultural event that helped garner greater respect and recognition of female athletes.
Although King recognized the importance of this match, she said that “to beat a 55-year-old guy was no thrill for me. The thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.”
Indeed, it is important not to forget that King did so much more than just win against an old misogynist at tennis. She was at the forefront of the Women’s Tennis Association, convincing her colleagues to form a players’ union. She founded the WomenSports magazine and Women’s Sports Foundation, an organization promoting the advancement of women and young girls in sports.
As King said it best, “In the ’70s, we had to make it acceptable for people to accept girls and women as athletes. We had to make it OK for them to be active. Those were much scarier times for females in sports.”
There were scarier times indeed, as even King’s sexual orientation became a subject of headlines in the 1980s. After a palimony suit was brought forth by one of her lovers, King had to come out publicly as bisexual, which made her lose $2 million in commercial endorsements.
At the end of the day, I think her story, despite being heroic and bad-ass, goes to show just how much women need to prove themselves outside of their sport in order to make an impact outside of it.
In a 1984 interview with Parade Magazine, King said, “My only regret is that I had to do too much off the court. Deep down, I wonder how good I really could have been if I [had] concentrated just on tennis.”
This only opens the door to one question: what are we waiting for to recognize women athletes as athletes and stop expecting them to also be advocates and publicists for their own sports?