As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into another month, we all have time on our hands to contemplate what the contours of returning to “normalcy” might entail. The optimists among us are discovering some silver linings: Many people have taken to outside-the-box thinking about structural change in the world and the way it operates. As just one example, current tennis great Roger Federer recently mused about merging the men’s and women’s tours, which have operated separately since the 1970s. “Am I the only one thinking that now is the time for men’s and women’s tennis to be united and come together as one?” he tweeted. It just so happens that this has been Billie Jean King’s dream for 50 years. “I’m hoping before I die that the men and women are together,” the 76-year-old once said. “It’s the right thing for our sport.”
In the 1960s and early 1970s, King—a 39-time Grand Slam champion—first began her campaign for parity for women in sports. Among other things, she advocated tirelessly to help pass Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in all federally funded school programs, including sports. Pressing for a merger of the tennis tours, she faced rejection from the men. Consequently, she founded the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) in 1973, the same year she accepted the challenge to play former tennis champ and media gadfly Bobby Riggs in the televised “Battle of the Sexes” exhibition match, which furthered her cause of gender equality and propelled it into the spotlight. On Sept. 20, 1973, King and Riggs—”the libber versus the lobber”—played in front of a packed, raucous crowd at the Houston Astrodome, in a match that ABC Sports turned into a media sensation. An estimated 90 million people watched her defeat Riggs in straight sets, making it one of the most watched sporting events of all time.
Billie Jean Moffatt was born in 1943, during the era when more women were entering the work force, giving them the resolve to promote their efforts on the athletic fields. Historically, although women had no lack of physical endurance in their roles on the plantation and in the factory, the idea of women exerting themselves competitively in sports was slow to take hold. Nineteenth-century America had inconsistent notions about women and their physical delicacy relative to men, and their participation in sports was recreational as opposed to competitive. It may come as little surprise to learn that women only began competing in the Olympics in 1920—but as late as 1967, Boston Marathon officials were still asserting that women were physiologically incapable of running 26.2 miles.
But in Billie Jean King’s lifetime, she would see such gendered beliefs change. In the Battle of the Sexes and beyond, it was important for her to foreground people working together to achieve equality for all, on and off the playing fields. A new generation of men, born in and after the era of women’s liberation, may be helping to change the conversation. “These guys want their daughters to have the same as their sons,” King asserted. “That’s not the way it was in the old days. It used to be all about the boys.”
Today, thanks to King’s early groundbreaking efforts, we see a fan base for professional tennis that is equally balanced between men and women. Until COVID-19, there had been a recalcitrance about teaming up. But in the wake of the uncertainty about when professional sports may resume, the economic incentive for rationalizing the many separate tennis organizations is palpable.
Billie Jean King helped launch the New-York Historical Society’s Center for Women’s History with the donation of her archive in 2016. These objects and artifacts, a rotation of which are displayed permanently on the Museum’s fourth floor, bear witness to her monumental work on behalf of not only women’s sports, but for a broader agenda for human and women’s rights. Meditating on the Battle of the Sexes, King said, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tennis tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.” She did not disappoint. The Battle played a significant role in gaining respect for women athletes. But it was also a tipping point that empowered women to advocate for equal pay in all sectors of the workforce. In the end, as King has said, “Sports are a microcosm of society.”
Written by Valerie Paley, director of the Center for Women’s History and chief historian of the New-York Historical Society
Top image: Billie Jean King at the 1972 French Open (©AELTC/Michael Cole)