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Billie Jean King
How would you choose to smash the patriarchy?
Billie Jean King used her tennis racquet.
It was 1973, the age of feminism. Women were burning bras and dumping their false eyelashes and high heels into the "freedom trash can." What’s more, they were demanding equal pay for equal work and equal attention in professional athletics.
Retired tennis champion Bobby Riggs assumed the role of male resistance. Never before had a man faced a woman in singles tennis. That was about to change: Riggs challenged Billie Jean King to a dual. Their confrontation on the court would become a global event.
On September 20, 1973, Bobby Riggs met Billie Jean King for the “battle of the sexes.” Ninety million people worldwide tuned in to watch.
Riggs had been a Wimbledon “triple crown” champion in 1939; he held top ranking through the 1940s; and he won six major titles before retiring from tennis in 1951. In 1973, he was certain that even at the age of 55 he could beat any top female player.
Billie Jean was then 29. She'd been playing tennis since she was 11, racking up numerous victories before going professional in 1968, including her first Wimbledon singles and doubles titles. By the time of her famous match with Bobby Riggs, she was considered the best women’s tennis player in the world.
But being a star athlete was not enough for King. She also used her platform to speak out about gender inequality. In those days, a man’s earnings would be 10, 11, even 12 times higher than a woman's, if women were allowed to play at all. In the 60s, King and eight other female tennis players started a women's professional tour, boycotting the male-run tennis establishment. In 1973, they founded the Women's Tennis Association with King at its head. From that position, she demanded equal pay for all players. If not paid equally, her membership would boycott such prestigious tournaments as the U.S. Open.
Riggs knew that a win against King would mean so much more than putting a single woman in her place. Because of King's position, it would bring down the entire feminist movement. This truth was not lost on Billie Jean: Before the start of the match, she gifted Riggs with a squealing pink pig – the symbol of male chauvinism.
King felt immense pressure to succeed, later commenting, “I thought it would set [women] back 50 years if I didn't win that match…It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self-esteem." But as she racked up point after point, it became clear that her efforts would have exactly the opposite effect. Women the world over cheered as King beat Riggs handily in three straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, and every girl who watched from her parents’ television set that day now knew exactly what she, too, might be capable of.
For her work both on and off the court, King received massive recognition. Her amazing speed and forceful backhand shot earned her 39 major wins, 20 of which occurred at Wimbledon – a new record. She also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. Additionally, after her forced coming-out in 1981, she became an icon for gay women. She also went on to work with Elton John's AIDS Foundation. Today, she is still working with the Women's Sports Foundation (formerly the Women's Tennis Association) and showing millions everywhere that whatever a man can do, a woman can do just as well.
Billie Jean King demanded equal recognition for women's successes everywhere. That's why she's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. And why we celebrate the launch of the movie, The True Story Behind the Battle of the Sexes, honoring that historic event.