In the vein of notable women, fighting for equality.... this day in history 1973, Billie Jean King took a swing at gender equality and gave it the ol' game-set-match at the age of 29.
A courageous advocate for gender equality for women from a young age, Billie Jean King accepted a challenge to play a match against former number 1-ranked tennis player Bobby Riggs. In doing so, she launched her fight for parity into the worldwide limelight.
Riggs, a top men’s player in the 1930s and 1940s, was a 55-year-old self-described hustler and male chauvinist. He claimed the women’s game was so inferior to the men’s game that even someone as old as he was could beat the current top female players. He challenged and defeated Margaret Court 6–2, 6–1.
Billie Jean, who had previously rejected challenges from Riggs, realized she had to play him, and accepted his challenge to disprove his baseless assertions.
Promoters dubbed the match the “Battle of the Sexes,” and gave it a primetime television audience. 50 million people in the United States and an estimated 90 million people worldwide tuned in on September 20, 1973 to watch King versus Riggs in the Houston Astrodome. One of the most watched televised sporting events of all time, no tennis match before or since has been seen by so many.
Billie Jean beat Bobby Riggs in straight sets, 6–4, 6–3, 6–3, and earned the winner-take-all prize of $100,000. The Battle of the Sexes tennis match was about more than simply defeating Riggs. King felt incredible pressure to win because, as she said afterward, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s [tennis] tour and affect all women’s self-esteem. To beat a 55-year-old guy was no thrill for me. The thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.”
Perhaps no other sporting event has played a more significant role in developing greater respect and recognition for women athletes than the Battle of the Sexes. Billie Jean’s victory, together with the passage of Title IX, is often credited with both igniting a boom in women’s sports participation, and for empowering women to advocate for equal pay in all sectors of the workforce.
She won 39 major titles including a record 20 Wimbledon titles, six of them for singles, and she led an uprising of underpaid female players to demand fairer treatment and compensation in professional tennis.”
(King founded the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973 and the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974). She is also the co-founder of World Team Tennis (WTT), the revolutionary professional tennis league established in 1974, and the founder of the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, launched in 2014 “to address inclusion and diversity issues in the workplace.”
To commemorate the 35th anniversary of the historic match, Billie Jean authored Pressure is a Privilege: Lessons I’ve Learned from Life and the Battle of the Sexes in 2008. A long-time champion for social justice and equality, Billie Jean King was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on August 12, 2009, becoming the first female athlete to be honored with the nation’s highest civilian honor. In September 2017, Fox Searchlight Pictures released the film Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone as Billie Jean and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs.