Tennis’ Ace Card: Billie Jean King and the Battle for Women’s Equality

In a single tennis match, Billie Jean King was able to do more for the cause of women than most feminists can achieve in a lifetime.”

- New York Times Editorial  [1]

The crowd cheered wildly as 29-year-old tennis ace Billie Jean King arrived, smiling confidently atop a gaudy Cleopatra-esque litter, flamboyantly decorated with ostrich feathers and borne by scantily clad male athletes.[2] Her opponent Bobby Riggs, a former world No. 1 and self confessed “male chauvinist pig,” sported a pale yellow jacket emblazoned with “Sugar Daddy.” As he approached the court, flanked by glamourous cheerleaders, King ceremoniously presented him with a brown piglet adorned with an oversized pink bow.

Over 30,000 spectators crammed into the Houston Astrodome on September 20, 1973 for the match dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes” and millions more tuned in worldwide. Choreographed to perfection, the event was “pure pantomime, outright silly,”[3] but the hype served its purpose. “Feminists had still not reached out to the masses, by then,” remembers journalist Grace Lichtenstein, “but Billie Jean King reached out, grabbed them by their hair and made people take notice.”[4]

The stakes far exceeded the $10,000 prize. Months before, Riggs crushed women’s world No. 1 Margaret Court in a humiliating defeat and was determined to do it again.[5] “I plan to bomb Billie Jean King in that match and set back the Women’s Lib movement 20 years,” he jibed.[6] King wasn’t flustered, “Bet the house,” she told her brother cooly the night before the match, “I’m going to win.” And she did, trouncing Riggs in straight sets.[7] “I underestimated you,” he admitted quietly, after vaulting the net to congratulate her.[8]

Riggs was not alone; many dismissed women’s tennis as a “frilly sideshow,”[9] with professional female athletes virtually unheard of. In 1921, the English Football Association decreed football “quite unsuitable for females,” and promptly banned women from playing in Football League grounds, despite the matches attracting 50,000 strong crowds.[10] Even forty years later, little had changed. Popular magazines considered football “only for men” and derided international women’s tournaments as “doomed to failure.”[11] Deemed too “fragile” and “weak” for long distance running, women were excluded from all Olympic events exceeding 200m until 1960.

Undeterred, some women resorted to subterfuge. In 1966, a stunned Roberta Glibb received a letter curtly rejecting her Boston Marathon application as women were not “physiologically capable of running 26 miles.” “All the more reason to run”, she remembers thinking, “At that moment I knew I was running for much more than my personal challenge. I was running to change the way people think.”[12] Pulling a loose blue hoodie over her cropped blonde hair, the 24-year old jumped out of the bushes at the starting line and finished the race in 3 hours 21 minutes, ahead of more than two-thirds of the male competitors.[13]

With equal opportunities proving challenging, equal pay seemed impossible. After winning the Wimbledon women’s doubles, King received nothing more than her $14 daily allowance,[14] so was initially delighted to be awarded a $45 gift voucher after securing three further Wimbledon titles in 1967.[15] However, soon she grew frustrated. Men’s prize money grew exponentially while women’s dwindled, with the 1970 Pacific Southwest Open tournament offering a $12,500 top prize for men, but just $1,500 for women.[16] “It was the hypocrisy of the thing that bugged me the most,” King recalls, “I wanted the chance to make money, honest money, doing what I did best.”[17] But by the time Billie Jean King stepped off the court after defeating Riggs the status quo was already shifting, and she intended to exploit this.

Women’s Lob in Tennis and Beyond: Don’t Iron While the Strike is Hot

“As a leader, I think it's really important to judge the emotions of the time, what people are thinking and feeling, and it was the height of the women's movement, it was pretty clear what was going on."[18]

- Billie Jean King

Just before rush hour on August 26, 1970, thousands of protesters poured onto New York’s Fifth Avenue halting the traffic, “Equal jobs,” their placards demanded, “Don’t iron while the strike is hot.”[19] “I propose that...waitresses stop waiting, cleaning women stop cleaning”, organiser Betty Friedan insisted, “Everyone who is doing a job for which a man would be paid more should stop.”[20] Feminism was thriving and legislation evolving fast to keep pace. The Equal Pay Act (1963) was quickly followed by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964), prohibiting sex discrimination in employment, with an 1968 executive order mandating affirmative action plans for hiring women.[21] However, it was “two funky little Roman numerals” [22] called Title IX, that helped Billie Jean King revolutionise sport.

Passed a year before the famous “Battle of the Sexes,” Title IX was designed to prohibit sex discrimination in educational programs receiving federal funding. Although its broadly worded provisions were primarily intended to equalise academic opportunities, it was soon dubbed “the sports law.”[23] Draft regulations implementing the legislation received over 10,000 comments, 90% of which concerned athletics provisions.[24] As critics scrabbled to concoct exemptions diluting the law’s jurisdiction, King testified at Senate committee hearings and used her magazine, women sports,  to spark public debate. “My job… was to change the hearts and minds of the people to match Title IX and what we were trying to do with the women’s movement,” King recalls, “It was to...get going changing a world where we had equality for both genders”.[25]

Outspoken, charismatic and ambitious, King was the perfect candidate to embody the abstract principles enshrined in Title IX. Voted the first female sportsperson of the year in 1972 and the most admired woman in the world three years later,[26] she was determined to use her influence to do more than sign petitions and pen editorials. After being excluded from the fledgling men’s professional association because “Nobody would ever pay a dime to watch you girls,” King decided to go it alone, and the Virginia Slims was born.[27]

Most players didn’t dare question the supremacy of the sacrosanct US Lawn Tennis Association, but King had no such qualms. After one tournament offered women just an eighth of the men’s top prize, she decided it was time to boycott, and together with eight other top players created the rival Virginia Slims Tour.[28] Disregarding threats of losing their national rankings and being excluded from major tournaments, the rebels signed nominal $1 contracts and cobbled together their own tour.[29] “Jeopardising the Grand Slams was probably the riskiest part of going against the old establishment,”  Rosie Casals, the Virginia Slims’ first champion remembers, “What else were we risking? We were really second-class citizens when we played...”[30]

Initially, it proved tough, some of the venues didn’t even have balls, but soon interest soared and rewards followed. The following year forty players competed for prize money totaling over $300,000.[31] However, splitting the fan base with competing tours still limited revenue and compromise were needed. Days before triumphing at Wimbledon in 1973, King ushered the top players into the Hotel Gloucester, locked the door and only emerged once they had agreed to form the Women’s Tennis Association. [32] Months later they rallied to demand equal pay at the US Open and won.[33]

Advantage King: Successes and Challenges for Women’s Equality

For a woman to be accepted on an equal playing field was so far beyond anyone’s comprehension… If it doesn’t seem like such a big thing today, it’s because the measuring sticks of old no longer apply”[34] 

- Donna Lopiano, Women’s Sports Foundation

“That’s a lot of money,”  US Open winner Sloane Stephens gasped incredulously, staring at the $3.7 million cheques. “Man, if that doesn’t make you want to play tennis,” the 24-year old joked with journalists, “I don’t know what will.” [35] Over the last four decades women’s tennis has changed unrecognizably. Not only has the Women’s Tennis Association grown exponentially with over 2,500  players from almost 100 countries competing, but most of the world’s highest-paid female athletes are tennis players. Serena Williams topped the list in 2018, with total earnings of $18.1 million.[36]

Title IX has played its part too; the number of female college athletes has increased by 622% since the legislation was enacted, and the US currently boasts the world’s best female soccer team. This success, Fox Sports executive Michael Mulvihill believes, is directly attributable to the law; ”[Girls and boys] grew up loving the game together and now 44 years later, Title IX has helped give the US a soccer team that can beat the world.”[37] The trend is a global one, with women’s participation and earnings increasing across the board; 83% of sports now offer equal pay.[38]

However, vestiges of the patronizing paternalism that plagued King and her contemporaries continue to haunt modern sport. In 1901, the US Lawn National Lawn Tennis Association decreed five-set matches put undue strain on the “weaker sex” (alongside keeping score) and unilaterally reduced them to three; over a century later the original matches have yet to be reinstated. “The shorter format demeans women and gives ammunition to opponents of equal pay”, Andy Murray argues vehemently.[39] Worse still, women are still excluded from Olympic events, including the 1,500m freestyle swimming, propagating “the erroneous bias that women aren't capable of the same feats of endurance as men.”[40]

Following in King's footsteps, female athletes have creatively used boycotts, lawsuits and the media to demand equality. Hours before winning the 2005 Wimbledon final, Venus Williams passionately addressed a Grand Slam Committee. “Imagine you’re a little girl”, she told the assembled board, “You have a dream…You fight, you work, you sacrifice ... and then you’re told you’re not the same as a boy. Almost as good, but not quite the same. Think about how devastating and demoralizing that could be.” Together with an emotive op-ed, and lobbying from UNESCO, Williams sparked a media firestorm, prompting even the British Prime Minister to endorse the campaign. Finally, in 2007, her efforts were rewarded as she received $1.4 million for winning Wimbledon alongside Roger Federer.[41]

Tired of earning four times less than their male colleagues, despite producing $20 million more revenue in 2015, the US Women’s soccer team took their battle to the courts.[42] Five top players filed a federal wage discrimination complaint and after tense year-long negotiations, secured increased base pay, travel allowances, and maternity benefits.[43] Inspired by their success, others followed. Irish soccer players considered strikes after being forced to change in public toilets[44], Nigeria’s national squad refused to leave their hotel until outstanding allowances were paid[45] and the US hockey team threatened to boycott the world championships.[46] “Not unlike Billie Jean King, [these] women...clearly understood that this was far greater than their own situation,” sports researcher Mary Jo Kane explains, “They advanced the puck on behalf of all women who came before them and those who will come after.”[47]

Who Let Them In? Beyond Prize Money: Changing the Face of Female Athletes in the Media

Picture a room, it can be a bar, a fraternity, a living room. And there are 30 men in it, sitting around a television, watching football. The door opens, and they turn, and you walk in. And you're staying. Here's what they think. A) Do we really want her here? B) Can we still do what we usually do? C) Why would she want to be here anyway?” 

- Gayle Gardner, sportscaster.[48]

The world of women’s sport is evolving fast, however, eliminating inequality requires not only equalizing prize money but reconsidering the media’s portrayal of female athletes. Men are commonly described as “strong, real and fast” women are often referred to as “older, pregnant or married.”[49] While male athletes “dominate” and “battle,” their female counterparts merely “participate” and “strive.” In 2015, World No 7 Eugenie Bouchard was asked to “do a little twirl” at the Australian Open.[50]

Just 10% of US sportscasters are female[51] and they face similar biases; they are more often rated by sexiness than competence.[52] “Guys do not have a genetic blueprint that allows them to understand or love sports," sportswriter Lesley Visser says, “Yet women have encountered a quiet but killing resistance in the three major-network sports divisions.”[53]

The linguistic distinctions may appear pedantic, but semantics matter. Prize money is equal in many sports, however, endorsements and sponsorship deals exacerbate the gender pay gap. In 2018, Roger Federer won $12.2m on court and $65 million in endorsements, while Serena Williams earned a total of $18.1m.[54] This pay differential is justified, critics argue; earnings should be proportional to advertising revenue and male sports attract significantly more spectators. However, the reality is more complex.

Not only does demeaning commentary chip away at female players reputations and decrease their perceived market value, but women receive just 7% of the total media coverage.[55]Broadcasters argue that showing less popular women’s sports would dent their profits, but building a strong fan base is challenging with such limited coverage. "Women's sports are caught in a Catch-22”, explains researcher Lynn Riginger, “in terms of recognition, respect, and financial viability”.[56] Despite the challenges, audiences are growing. In 2013 and 2014 the women’s US Open attracted higher TV ratings than their male counterparts, while the FIFA World Cup Women’s Final against Japan was the most-watched soccer match in US history.[57]

Learn More

News and Analysis

Books

  • King, Billie Jean. Pressure Is a Privilege. Lifetime Media, 2018.
  • Roberts, Selena. A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs And the Match That Leveled the Game. Crown, 2005.
  • Starr, Cynthia. We Have Come A Long Way: Story of Women's Tennis. McGraw-Hill, 1989.
  • Ware, Susan. Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports. The University of North Carolina Press, 2011

Videos

 

 

 


Footnotes

 

[1] Ware, Susan. Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports . The University of North Carolina Press, 2011. p. 2

[2] Greenspan, Jesse. “When Billie Beat Bobby.History, 20 Sept. 2013.

[3] Alexander, Bryan. “'Battle of the Sexes': How Accurate Is the Movie about the Infamous Tennis Match?USA Today, 24 Sept. 2017,

[4] Howard, Johnette. The Rivals. Crown, 2007. p. 37

[5] Roberts, Selena. “Tennis's Other 'Battle of the Sexes,' Before King-Riggs.New York Times, 21 Aug. 2005.

[6] Ware, Susan. p. 4

[7] Kermode, Mark. “Battle of the Sexes Review a Winner in Straight Sets.” The Guardian, 26 Nov. 2017.

[8] Frost, Caroline. “Billie Jean King Reveals She Told Brother To 'Bet The House' When She Played 'Battle Of The Sexes' Match With Bobby Riggs.HuffPost, 23 June 2014.

[9] Stanley, Alessandra. “The Legacy of Billie Jean King, an Athlete Who Demanded Equal Play.” New York Times, 26 Apr. 2006.

[10] Barker, Philip. “Female Pioneers - the Battle for Gender Equality in Sport.Inside the Games, 5 Mar. 2017.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Gibb, Roberta. “A Run of One’s Own.” Running Past.

[13] Miller, Jen. “Finally Honoring Bobbi Gibb, the First Woman to Run the Boston Marathon.ESPN, 19 June 2017.

[14] Dreier, Peter. “Honoring Billie Jean King, Human Rights Pioneer, on the 40th Anniversary of the ‘Battle of the Sexes.’” HuffPost, 6 Dec. 2017.

[15] Cochrane, Kira. “Interview Billie Jean King: 'It's Not about the Money. It's about the Equality Message'.” The Guardian, 23 June 2013.

[16] Ware, p. 31

[17] Ware, p. 30

[18] Frost, Caroline

[19] Cohen, Sascha. “The Day Women Went on Strike.” Time, 26 Aug. 2015.

[20] Carmody, Deirdre. “General Strike by U.S. Women Used to Mark 19th Amendment.” New York Times, 21 Mar. 1970.

[21] Milligan, Susan. “Stepping Through History.” US News, 20 Jan. 2017.

[22] Ware, p. 42

[23] Ware, p. 54

[24] Ware, p. 59

[25] Ware, p. 43

[26] Schwartz, Larry. “ Billie Jean Won for All Women.” ESPN Classic.

[27]  Cochrane, Kira

[28] Lincoln, Adam. “The Women Who Changed Tennis: Why the 'Original 9' Matter to the WTA.” WTA, 21 Sept. 2017.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Cochrane, Kira

[32] Ware, p. 38

[33] AP. “Billie Jean King's Early Epiphany Led to Social Activism.USA Today, 29 Sept. 2017.

[34] Ware, p. 2

[35] Kutz, Steven. “‘That’s a Lot of Money — Oh My God!’ Sloane Stephens Reacted to Making $3.7 Million at the U.S. Open as We All Would.MarketWatch, 10 Sept. 2017.

[36] Badenhausen, Kurt. “The Highest-Paid Female Athletes 2018.” Forbes, 21 Aug. 2018.

[37] Carpenter, Les. “ US Soccer's Wage Gap Is America's Shame.” The Guardian, 31 Mar. 2016.

[38] Tweedale, Alistair. “83 Per Cent of Sports Now Give Men and Women Equal Prize Money - but Football Retains Largest Pay Gap.The Telegraph, 19 June 2017.

[39]Gender and Tennis: Coming up Short.” The Economist, 23 Jan. 2012.

[40] Martinelli, Michelle. “It's 2016 But the Olympics Won't Let Women Swim the 1,500-Metre Freestyle.Vice Sports, 9 Aug. 2016.

[41]How Venus Williams Got Equal Pay for Women at Wimbledon.” The Washington Post, 2 July 2013.

[42] Carpenter, Les.

[43]US Women's National Soccer Team Resolves Pay Dispute with Federation.” The Guardian.

[44] Fitzmaurice, Aidan. “Sharing Tracksuits and Changing in Toilets - Irish Women's Team Hit out at Treatment as FAI Respond with Statement.

[45] Okeleji, Oluwashina. “African Women's Champions Nigeria in Fight for 'Welfare'.” BBC Sport, 9 Dec. 2016.

[46] Das, Andrew. “In Fight for Equality, U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Leads the Way.” The New York Times, 4 Mar. 2018.

[47]Team USA's Hockey Star Has a Higher Goal: Equal Pay.” OZY, 15 Feb. 2018.

[48] Jenkins, Sally. “Who Let Them in?” The Vault, 17 June 1991.

[49]Gender Divides in the Language of Sport.Cambridge University Press.

[50] Ellen, Barbara. “ For Both Sexes, Top Tennis Is One Long Marketing Twirl.The Guardian, 25 Jan. 2015.

[51] Kaminsky, Kaitlyn. “Women in Sports Media Gain Ground, but It’s an Uphill Climb.The Seattle Times, 11 Sept. 2014.

[52] Katz, Ron. “Gross Gender Discrimination In Sportscasting.Forbes, 28 Nov. 2015.

[53] Jenkins, Sally. “Who Let Them in?” The Vault, 17 June 1991.

[54] Badenhausen, Kurt

[55] Martinson, Jane. “BBC Sport's Barbara Slater: 'There's a Transformation in Women's Coverage'.” The Guardian, 5 Mar. 2017.

[56] Ridinger, Lynn. “Looking at Gender Differences Through the Lens of Sport Spectators.” ODU Digital Commons, 2006.

[57] Close, Kerry. “5 Reasons Why Tennis Should Keep Paying Men and Women Equally.” Time, 22 Mar. 2016.

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