Billie Jean King and “The Battle of the Sexes”

Tennis Player Billie Jean King Being Carried on Palanquin
20 Sep 1973, Houston, Texas, USA — Original caption: Tennis star Billie Jean King is carried to the court by four men for the battle of the sexes tennis match with 55-year-old aging tennis star Bobby Riggs. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

With the passing of Title IX of the education amendments of 1972, a whole new world of women’s sports was opened up that hadn’t previously been there.  Title IX required schools to put money into women’s sports equal with the money that was spent on men’s sports.  This opened up many opportunities for women to receive scholarships and play sports that they hadn’t previously had. It also gave many men the opportunity to show their true colors and unfortunately, sexist comments about female athletes were rampant.  One of these men that was unapologetic about his sexism was Bobby Riggs. He was a former world ranked tennis player that was positive he, as a man, was superior to any woman tennis player.  At the age of 55, he decided to prove to the world that he was right in his sexist comments and chauvinistic beliefs. Bobby Riggs had already started his sexist crusade when he challenged the women’s number 1 player Margaret court to a match. He defeated her easily and set his sights on Billie Jean King, who he felt he needed to beat because she was the “women’s libber leader” in professional sports.  Billie Jean King accepted his challenge and a match was set.  The two decided to meet in Houston, Texas in the Astrodome, in a winner-take-all match with a prize of $100,000.

Leading up to the match, Bobby Riggs continued to share his antiquated opinions about women. “Girls play nice tennis, for girls” he stated, “but when they get out there on a court with a man, even a tired old man at 55, they’re goanna be in big trouble.” He did not stop there when in a pre match press conference he stated, “Personally I wish women would stay in the home and do the kitchen work and take care of the babies and compete in areas where they can compete in.” With all of the press around the match, people everywhere were captivated and wanted to see how Billie Jean King was going to fare against Bobby Riggs. As press coverage mounted, so did the pressure on Billie Jean King. In interviews years late, Billie Jean spoke of the overwhelming feeling of responsibility she felt to win the match for women everywhere.  In her own words she said, “If I lose, it’s going to set women back 50 years, at least.”  Some tennis experts and commentators felt that the pressure would get to Miss King and she would not be able to perform on such a big stage. Billie Jean King not only did well under pressure, she dominated the entire match.

battle

The match itself was played in front of 30,000 people at the astrodome, with another 50 million people watching on television elsewhere. There was an amazing amount of fanfare that went into the match.  Bobby Riggs was rolled into the stadium in a rickshaw and Billie jean king was carried in on throne. The show around the match was big, but the best part of the show started when the first ball was served. Once the match started, Billie Jean King won the first set and never looked back.  She defeated Bobby Riggs in three straight sets to win the battle of the Sexes. The effect of the match is still being felt today. Billie said that two things came out of that match for women: self-confidence and empowerment. With 50 million viewers on TV, the whole country took notice.  Young girls who looked up to her saw their favorite tennis player win in convincing fashion and gave them confidence to pursue and achieve their goals. Billie jean king also noticed that the match had great effect on young men who were watching as well.  Many times she has had men come up to her who watched the match as boys and who now have daughters, and tell her how grateful they are for what she did because they know it made a difference in the life opportunities their daughters will have.

The Battle of the Sexes with Bobby Riggs was only an exhibition match that had no direct outcome on her tennis career.  However, of all the matches she played, this match had a greater impact on the sporting world and on social change than any other match that she played. Her battle for equality still goes on today as she speaks for civil rights for everyone around the world.

Greenspan, Jesse. “Billie Jean King Wins the ‘Battle of the Sexes,’ 40 Years Ago.” History.com. September 20, 2013. Accessed November 20, 2016. http://www.history.com/news/billie-jean-king-wins-the-battle-of-the-sexes-40-years-ago.

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2 thoughts on “Billie Jean King and “The Battle of the Sexes”

  1. More power to Billie Jean King! I loved that she said, “if I lose, I set women back 50 years.” And she was absolutely right. If she had lost the match, women would have been demoted indefinitely. But she won. And she brought attention to the ability of women to play sports.

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  2. I think it’s great that Billie Jean King challenged social ideas of gender, and she was successful in doing so! I was the very first female Student Body President at my high school, when I ran people told me I couldn’t get it because people vote for boys over girls and I wouldn’t have enough votes. I won, and after I graduated three years of female Student Body Presidents followed me.

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