Billie Jean was here in town a couple of weeks ago, receiving one of the Beacon Awards at Major League Baseball’s Civil Rights Game, with the Cincinnati Reds. The town also hosted the event last year – and everyone I know was very proud and excited about it, buying tickets to the luncheon where the winners spoke, and to the game the next day. And I loved Krista Ramsey’s editorial in the Enquirer titled Thanks, Billie Jean, for your impatience.
I remember Billie Jean’s impatience as she pushed for the Title IX legislation, which provided equity for girls in sports. I remember her determination in starting the Virginia Slims tour, which morphed into the Woman’s Tennis Association, and helped push for equality for women players at tournaments. She also started World Team Tennis, which has never come to Cincinnati, but provides lots of fun and interest for fans, and a break for players in the middle of the summer. Most major cities now have have their own mixed team.
She won the 1972 US Open, and then announced she wouldn’t play in 1973 unless the women’s and men’s winners earned the same amounts. The strategy worked! The world was just beginning to change then toward equality for women, and America was slowly, slowly beginning to move in the right direction.
Mostly, of course, I remember her match against Bobby Riggs, dubbed The Battle of the Sexes. On September 20, 1973, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs took to the court at the Astrodome in Houston. It was exciting – I was glued to the set. And most people were sure a woman couldn’t beat a man at tennis – or at anything. We were still weak and whining as far as the culture was concerned. And then – she didn’t just beat him. She wiped him out. Hurray!
She was smart, he was slow. She was focused, he was arrogant. Astonishing, the push, the jolt that evening gave to women. We just didn’t have to take it any more. That evening, plus the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (where women were added late in the negotiations) and Title IX, created the era we’re now in. Once it was someone’s job to track the dollars spent on women’s sports, and someone’s job to push for equal pay for equal work, cranking up the bureaucracy toward equity, the ball started to roll in our favor.
And that ball was the tennis ball Billie Jean King smashed ‘right down Bobby Riggs’ throat’, as Krista says in her editorial. A real game changer, that match.