Womens Month

Billie Jean King: An Activist Born Courtside

on March 02, 2022

 

Billie Jean King once said, “My life has always been about getting the door ajar, and then have the next generation blow it wide open.” Billie’s fight for women’s equality began when a photographer kicked her out of a winner’s picture for wearing homemade shorts rather than the get-in-your-way-when-you're-trying-to-serve skirt that was required.

“You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby”

At the intersection of feminism’s second wave of radical change, prize money continued to lag—and the Pacific Southwest Championships in LA were the worst in the league. With a payout of $12,500 to men and a measly $1,500 for women to split, it wasn’t just comical, it was offensive.

Billie, Rosie Casals, and Nancy Richey planned to boycott the Championships because, by showing up, they believed it justified men making 164% more than them. They asked Gladys Heldman, publisher of World Tennis Magazine, what to do. Being the mother of tennis pro Julie Heldman, she understood their struggle. Heldman said a boycott was too passive. Instead, she told them to “Start your own tour.”

Under threat of suspension, Billie and eight other brave women broke away from the tennis establishment. "The Original 9" signed $1 contracts with Gladys Heldman to compete in the Virginia Slims Invitation with a cash payout of $7,500—$5,000 from Gladys herself.

Billie saw the irony in having a cigarette company sponsor their tournament. But Philip Morris had the money and the women needed a prize purse. This inspired 40 players to register for the first-ever, full-scale Virginia Slims Circuit in 1971, where the total prize money totaled $309,100. The following year, the circuit expanded to 23 tournaments, culminating in the first Virginia Slims Championship with a prize purse of $100,000.

Not only did they “stick it to the man,” they made more money than they ever could’ve before their renowned revolt. “The Original 9,” Gladys Heldman, and a cigarette company proved to women around the world that they could compete, have their accomplishments recognized, and make a living playing tennis—just like the men did.

“Battle of the Sexes” - Pig Vs. Lib

In an interview before the “Battle of the Sexes” between Billie and Bobby Riggs, Riggs said, “I’m going to try to win for all the guys around the world who feel as I do, that the male is king, the male is supreme. I’ve said it over and over again and I still feel that way. Girls play a nice game of tennis for girls. When they get out there on the court, with a man, even a tired old man of 55, they’re gonna be in big trouble.”

Held amidst Roe v. Wade, Title IX, and women questioning their role in society, the “Battle of the Sexes” was unlike any other tennis match. Proving women were fierce, capable, and deserving of equal prize money pressed down on Billie’s shoulders. She had to win. Otherwise, she thought it’d set women back 50 years.

Roughly 30,000 people piled into the Astrodome and another 90 million people watched on TV as a group of models hauled Riggs on a wagon cloaked in his Sugar Daddy attire. Across the court, men carried Billie on a throne as if she was Cleopatra.

In the first match, Billie was down by a few points but exhausted Riggs through an endless series of baseline rallies. Riggs couldn’t handle it and lost 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Instead of jumping off a bridge like he said he’d do if Billie won, he quietly disappeared with his tail tucked between his legs.

This was more than a win in tennis or against a chauvinist. It was a win for women everywhere. After years of playing for 1/5th of the prize money men made, Mars Bars, or apparel gift cards, women’s potential in the sport became limitless.

Women’s Sports Foundation 

One year after Billie defeated Riggs, she took $5,000 of her winnings to start the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) in 1974—a national non-profit organization helping women and girls seek their full potential in sport and life.

What started as an organization educating the public about women’s sports has now invested over $100 million in opportunities for women and girls in sport since its inception. From their Title IX advocacy efforts to the multitude of programs they offer to publishing monumental reports, the Women’s Sports Foundation remains integral to increasing participation and retention of women and girls in sports.

Kicked-down Doors

Without Billie Jean King questioning the status quo or revolting against sexism, unequal pay, pummeling a chauvinist on the tennis court, or founding an organization with her own money, women might still be playing for Mars Bars.

Billie brought tennis to the public. She made it acceptable for women and girls to be athletes, active, and to strive for something outside of childbirth.

She continues to inspire women and girls to pursue sports, to be taken seriously, and to demand equal pay. It’s why companies like Zwift partner with the WSF to continue to build upon what was started 48 years ago.

Billie once said, “Victory is fleeting. Losing is forever.”

But victory, her victories, which have now become shared victories for women and girls around the world, will continue to live on for generations. Billie didn’t just “get the door ajar,” she kicked it down.


​​Looking for more inspiring stories of female trailblazers? Read the stories of women who have helped pave the way to women’s sports equality - Kittie Knox, Eileen Gray, and Kathrine Switzer.

Then, get active with Zwift’s women's community at www.zwift.com/women

Resources

If You Build It, They Will Race: The Story of Eileen Gray 11 months ago