“It was 1955, and Billie Jean was barred from a group photo of junior tennis players because she had decided to wear tennis shorts that day, rather than the tennis skirt traditionally worn by female athletes. She soon learned that the unequal treatment that female athletes experienced wasn’t only relegated to dress code.” (Billie Jean King website)
Billie Jean King, born on November 22, 1943 in Long Beach, California, became the top-ranked women’s tennis player by 1967. In 1973, she formed the Women’s Tennis Association and defeated Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes.” The first prominent female athlete to admit her homosexuality, King continued her work as an influential social activist for the rights of the LGBTQ community after retiring from tennis.After a few years of promising play, Billie Jean King won her first major singles championship at Wimbledon in 1966. In 1970, she joined the brand-new Virginia Slims Tour for women, and in 1971, she became the first female athlete to earn over $100,000 in prize money in a single year. Frustrated by these striking inequalities, King lobbied for the equal prize money for men and women. As the most celebrated player at the time, King used her privileged position to threatened to boycott of the 1973 U.S Open. As a result, the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money to both sexes
Former number 1 ranked tennis player and self-proclaimed chauvinist Bobby Riggs claimed the women’s game was inferior to men’s and boasted that he could beat then-29-year-old Billie Jean. He challenged Billie Jean to a match commonly known as the “Battle of the Sexes.” The match took place on September 20, 1973, at the Houston Astrodome and it is probably one of the most watched televised sports events of all time, with 90 million viewers. Billie Jean beat Bobby Riggs and earned the winner-take-all prize of $100,000.
Billie Jean King spent the 1960s and early 1970s campaigning tirelessly for parity for women in sports, and in 1972, she turned her focus toward helping to pass Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination in all federally funded school programs, including sports. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was written to end discrimination based on sex, religion, race and national origin in the area of employment. However, it did not prohibit gender discrimination in public education and federally assisted programs, including high school and collegiate athletic programs. In 1971, before Title IX passed, only 1% of college athletic budgets went to women’s sports programs.
On August 12, 2009, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honour, by President Barack Obama for her advocacy work on behalf of women and the LGBTQ community. In 2014, she founded the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to addressing the critical issues required to achieve diverse, inclusive leadership in the workforce. She is truly an inspiration!
Written by WAVE intern: Mariana Cunha
Billie Jean King website: www.billiejeanking.com
The Guardian: www.theguardian.com