At the 29th annual Chicago Foundation for Women luncheon, tennis legend Billie Jean King recalled being a 12-year-old girl and realizing that everything about tennis was white. Her shoes, her clothes, and even the people playing it. “This has to change,” she thought. The previous year, King had declared at a family dinner that she would be the number one player in the world. Now she decided to use tennis as her platform to bring about fair play in tennis, if not the world. Quite an agenda for a 12-year-old to set, eh?
Few people embody the fight for women’s equality as well as Billie Jean King. Her legend was cemented in 1973 when she beat the pants off Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match. She then became one of the first active athletes to acknowledge being gay.
But much of what she did for women’s sports is rarely mentioned – she mentored Julie Foudy as she led the 1998 women’s soccer national team to a strike over equal pay ahead of the mythical 1999 Women’s World Cup. King did the same with Venus Williams as Williams fought for equal prize money at Wimbledon. And these were extensions of King’s own work for equal pay that began with creating a women’s tennis players union, the Women’s Tennis Association, and quickly winning equal prize money at the U.S. Open. Being a champion has its advantages and King never hesitated to put them to use. And this does not even count all her work on behalf of HIV/AIDS, promoting girls participation in sports through her Women’s Sports Foundation, and equal access to tennis through community programs that strives for not only gender equity, but also diversity on the court.
41 years after beating Bobby Riggs and instilling a huge dose of girl power in the nation, King is still fighting for equity. As she addressed the audience of Chicago women philanthropists, she reminded the crowd that women need to continue the fight for equal pay and fair play – that justice is not just about equity for women, but equity for all.
King also took a moment to poke fun at how women are not stepping up to support women’s sports. She said that men buy season tickets to support a community and a team, while women wait for ticket discounts that include a parade of giveaways or meet-and-greets with women athletes. “We can’t win this way!” One must agree given that in Chicago, game three of the Women’s National Basketball Association drew less than 10,000 fans. King used humor to send the message – if we don’t buy a ticket, don’t expect the league to continue. Feminist movements require support even after the barriers have been blow down.
King would have made an excellent teacher. After she schooled the crowd at lunch, she quizzed a small group of teen girls who were assisting at the event. “You know who Sally Ride is, right?” When the girls responded with a no, King went full-history-teacher on them and even told them to look up Valentina Tereshkova. If she could, I am sure she would have assigned them a written essay too.
In an introductory video, John McEnroe admitted to being a young male chauvinist in 1973 watching TV eager to see Bobby Riggs wipe the court with King. Now that he is a father with three daughters, he said he was happy she won. Jimmy Connors chimed in that King not only taught the men of tennis that women could play, but taught all men that women could play anywhere – on the court or in the boardroom. Of all the lessons King continues to teach us, it most valuable may be to always keep pressing and teaching those around you.
Veronica Arreola writes the blog Viva la Feminista, where she tries to navigate and understand the intersection between feminism, motherhood and her Latinadad. You can follow her on Twitter @veronicaeye
Image via Veronica Arreola