I know nothing about tennis except that it’s thrilling to watch athletes play the sport. I’m in love with love but am clueless about love on the tennis court. As to a match point, well, I’ve always avoided playing with matches. Yet, when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the historic “Battle of the Sexes” 40 years ago this month on Sept. 20, 1973, my life, as was the case with so many women (and men), changed.
The PBS program “American Masters: Billie Jean King,” which commemorates the 40th anniversary of the “Battle of the Sexes” as well as King’s iconic impact on both tennis and the culture, premiered last week. The engaging film, a part of the Emmy-winning series “American Masters,” can be viewed on the website pbs.org/americanmasters. The show highlights King’s founding of the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973, the year when the U.S. Open became the first Grand Slam tournament to award equal prize money to men and women.
Perhaps most movingly for those of us who are queer, King talks in the film about how hard it was for her when she was outed by her lover Marilyn Barrett (who filed a “palimony” suit) before she was at peace with being a lesbian. When the story broke, King told her publicist that she had to be open about being gay. “It’s about being truthful to my audience and to my fans and to the world,” King said, adding, “I’d do anything I can to help the LGBT community.”
Four decades ago, we were mesmerized watching (in person or as an estimated 50 million of us in the United States alone did on TV) the King and Riggs “Battle” at the Astrodome in Houston. King, then 29, and a tennis champion, and now a feminist and queer icon, was carried in, hoisted by hunky young men – like a 20th century Cleopatra. Riggs, now deceased, then 55 and a former tennis champion, was escorted in a rickshaw by beautiful young women – his “bosom buddies.” With a nod to the then emerging (2nd wave) feminist movement and entertainment, the ABC broadcast of the event began with the playing of the showbiz standard “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” from “Annie Get Your Gun.”
Yet, far more than glamour was at stake in the “Battle of the Sexes” for people not only my generation, but for my parents and, even future generations. It’s hard to imagine how hard things were for girls and women back then. Title IX (legislation prohibiting discrimination based on sex in programs in schools, including sports) was just passed in 1972. Women couldn’t legally have an abortion in many states until the Supreme Court ruled in Roe. v. Wade in 1973. Women had to be tough as nails if they hoped to enter a profession such as the law or the clergy. My Dad, who was a vet, encountered ridicule from some of his professional colleagues when he hired a woman to join his veterinary practice.
In 1973, women’s tennis had only been considered professional for three years. Before that, women tennis players were paid as amateurs – though they were as skillful as their male counterparts. When King accepted Riggs’ challenge (after Riggs said the place for women was not the tennis court but the kitchen and bedroom), she was fighting for women not only in sports, but in all areas of life. When King defeated Riggs it was the victory felt around the world. Men, women, boys and girls saw what women could do. “You see that?” my Dad said to me, after King walloped Riggs, “don’t listen to guys who’ll steer you wrong! Girls can do anything!”
“I like the idea of playing for someone else besides myself,” King says in the “American Masters” film.
Thank you for playing for all of us, Billie Jean King.
Kathi Wolfe is a poet and writer. Her collection “The Green Light” is published by Finishing Line Press.