Billie Jean King’s Visit to The Oxford Union

By Johnnie Dowd, English Student at Oxford University, Lady Margaret Hall


On Tuesday 15th November, Billie Jean King visited The Oxford Union Society for an interview in front of members about her life-experiences both within and outside of the realm of tennis. Before the interview, students who managed to successfully ballot for a meet and greet, gathered in the book-lined Gladstone Room eagerly anticipating King’s arrival. I was lucky enough to be counted amongst these students after having registered my interest weeks prior to her visit.

Johnnie Dowd and Billie Jean King in the Gladstone Room at Oxford.

Having attended a few similar events, I was immediately struck by the relaxed atmosphere which King’s presence inspired. There existed no separation between King, her team and the students (as is common for such situations), but instead everyone mingled amongst one another, happily engaged in conversation. My first observation, then, was that she relegated all formalities with the intention of speaking to students on their level. Whilst the room buzzed with interest directed at such a high-profile and inspiring figure, Billie Jean King herself redirected the interest towards the students. In fact, before I could even express my thanks and excitement in meeting her, she disbanded my rehearsed appraisals with the unexpected question ‘and what do you study?’. From here the conversation flowed wonderfully – its focus moving naturally between the goings-on of my life and the lessons learnt from hers. The questions directed at her were so often answered with a question and this was extremely refreshing.

The procession moved to the Union’s historic debating chamber where King was set to be interviewed. That this large room was so busy (despite the fact students, by this point in term, are knee deep in work) is testament to the esteem with which King is held. We heard much about King’s life experiences both on and off the court and in particular, much attention was given to her activism in the spheres of gender, race and LGBTQ rights. I got the impression that King distinctly recognised the pleasing juxtaposition between her life – so fantastically dedicated to her ongoing pursuit of positive change – and the lives of we students – looking to our futures with the hope of replicating her kindness and success. Her experiences were imparted with humility, but I believe each one of us was in awe of just how hard she has battled for changes which we might today take for granted. Surrounded by the grandeur of this old Oxford location, Billie Jean King successfully weaved the importance of working towards a better shared future into each of her responses – in every case, imparting valuable advice as to how the audience might tackle the world inside and outside of Oxford University.

Every student profited from King’s palpable wisdom and we all felt just a little bit warmer on what was otherwise a dim winter’s day in Oxford.