November 22 marks Billie Jean King’s 76th birthday! King was a legend on the tennis court, earning 39 Grand Slam titles during her career. But her legacy has been defined off the court as well: Her attention to equity and inclusion at the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality has made a profound impact on American society and made her a key figure in women’s history.
In 2016, King donated her personal archive to the Center for Women’s History. Visitors to the New-York Historical Society can currently experience two installations devoted to King’s archive: Collecting Billie Jean King and Billie Jean King: For Freedom and Equality. The cases showcase objects significant to her exceptional tennis career, as well as items that highlight her decades-long commitment to fighting for equal rights for women and the LGBTQ community. As King has stated “Sports are a microcosm of society.” From a young age, she was attuned to the differences she experienced as a female athlete:
“When I was 12, I had an epiphany: Everybody in tennis wore white shoes, white socks, white clothes, used white balls, and everybody who played was white. And I asked myself: Where is everybody else? I figured if I were good enough, maybe I could help change not only my sport but also the world.”
The artifacts currently on display on the 4th floor of the Museum both humanize King and point to significant moments in King’s personal history and, by extension, the broader story of women’s history in America and beyond.
King’s signature brand blue Adidas shoes mark her as “the first female tennis player to have a signature sneaker.” (King herself never actually wore the shoes—visitors often note how small the size is.) Given the power of fashion in the highly visible sports arena, which has only grown since King’s heyday, this is a meaningful milestone.
Notably, in 2018, a limited edition, modernized version of King’s signature shoes were released, to mark the 45th anniversary of the “Battle of the Sexes” match. Perhaps the most famous moment in her fight for equality, the “Battle of the Sexes” was a 1973 tennis match in which King played against “self-proclaimed chauvinist Bobby Riggs” and won, with more than 90 million people watching. In a 2015 TED Talk, King said, “I knew it was about social change… If I lose, it’s gonna put women back 50 years, at least.” In the press release for the limited-edition shoes, King said, “They will serve as the perfect visual reminder of the importance that we must work together to achieve equality for all, on and off the field of play.”
King’s Wimbledon dress from 1982 also provides insight into how King presented herself at the height of her tennis career. The dress, obviously crafted with action in mind, is made of white fabric with blue floral detailing around the neckline and bottom hemline (which seems to be pushing the Wimbledon all-white clothing rule). It was designed by Ted Tinling, who also designed King’s dress for the “Battle of the Sexes” match, and would become one of the most recognizable names in women’s tennis attire of the era.
Also on display are objects that serve as a testament to King’s work for freedom and equality. Four awards grace the bottom of the display case: the GLAAD Media award she won in 2000, her Human Rights Campaign National Equity award and Lambda Legal Liberty award from 2006, and the Medal of Freedom certificate President Barack Obama presented her with in 2009. Hung across the top of the case is the Grand Marshal badge King donned in the 2018 New York City Pride Parade. By highlighting how King has used her fame to advocate for marginalized communities, we are able to tell a more complex portrait of this incredible person.
Written by Caroline Shadle, Intern, Center for Women’s History, New-York Historical Society, and MA Candidate (Dance Studies), NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study