Billie Jean King first encountered gender inequality at the age of 12, while participating in a tournament at the Los Angeles Tennis Club.
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.
A Need for Parity
In the 1960s and 1970s, the tournament payouts for women tennis players were significantly lower than those received by the male players. In 1971, Billie Jean became the first woman athlete to earn over $100,000 in prize money. Yet when she won the U.S. Open in 1972, she received $15,000 less than the men’s champion, Ilie Năstase.
Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with the young progressive.
Billie Jean’s ascension in the ranks of her sport corresponded with the early years of the women’s movement, and the rising star soon learned she could leverage her success and influence to demand change. She said, “Unless I was number 1, I wouldn’t be listened to.”
She began to campaign relentlessly for equal prize money in the men’s and women’s games.
Joining eight other women tennis players, Billie Jean signed a $1 contract and joined the Virginia Slims Circuit founded by Gladys Heldman in 1970 to protest against the inequity in prize money. This group of brave women, known as the “Original 9,” backed Billie Jean as she formed the Women’s Tennis Association and became its first president. Once the tour took off, King worked tirelessly to promote it.
Equal Prize Money at the U.S. Open
In 1973, she lobbied for equal prize money for men and women at the U.S. Open, and as a result of her efforts, a sponsor was found to level the playing field.
As a result of her advocacy, the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money to both sexes. All four Grand Slams now offer equal prize money to women and men.
Later that same year, the campaign for pay equality gained international attention. Former number 1 ranked tennis player and self-proclaimed chauvinist Bobby Riggs claimed the women’s game was inferior to the men’s and boasted that he could beat then-29-year-old Billie Jean, even as a 55-year-old man who was 26 years older than she. He challenged Billie Jean to a match and she accepted.
Battle of the Sexes
She felt tremendous pressure to win the match. Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding, had passed the previous year, with Billie Jean testifying on Capitol Hill on its behalf, and the women’s movement was gaining even more momentum. She trained relentlessly on behalf of all women fighting for equality.
Promoters named it the “Battle of the Sexes” and 90 million people worldwide tuned in on September 20, 1973 to watch Billie Jean defeated Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
Her fight for parity didn’t stop there.
Taking The Lead
She co-founded World TeamTennis, the only professional, co-ed team sports league, in 1974.
In 1974, she co-founded womenSports magazine and started the Women’s Sports Foundation, dedicated to creating leaders by providing girls access to sports and to defending Title IX in lawsuits.
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.
A National Honor
The Presidential Medal of Freedom
President Barack Obama, who had watched the Battle of the Sexes as a 12-year-old, awarded Billie Jean the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, on August 12, 2009, for her advocacy work on behalf of women and the LGBTQ community.
She is also the recipient of the 1999 Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Arthur was Billie Jean’s dear friend, and both worked tirelessly for gender and racial equality, in support of each other. Billie Jean even sported an afro in her 1975 Wimbledon singles win, to show her allegiance with Arthur in the fight for racial justice.