Billie Jean King, an inspiration to sportspersons and feminists world over, turns 75
This state of affairs is owed to the struggles and the hard work of women such as Billie Jean King – who turned 75 on Thursday; and who is one of the main reasons why there even exists a women’s game today.Updated: Nov 23, 2018 18:27 IST
Tennis today has one of the best records in sport in terms of gender equality. All the Grand Slams (since 2007) have equal pay, women players have massive followings, and sexism in and around the sport is often called out and hotly debated. In at least acknowledging the problem of sexism and not shying away from public debate, tennis has a better track record than most mainstream sports. This state of affairs is owed to the struggles and the hard work of women such as Billie Jean King, who turned 75 on Thursday, and who is one of the main reasons why there even exists a women’s game today.
At the start of the Open Era in tennis, when professionals began to be allowed in the major tournaments alongside amateurs, women were getting paid far less than men. At the first Open Wimbledon, Billie Jean King took home £750 for winning the women’s championship, while Rod Laver won £2000 for winning the men’s. By 1970, the difference in pay between men and women in top level tennis was as bad as 12:1. At this point, putting their careers on the line, Billie Jean King and nine other brave women, decided to boycott the United States Lawn Tennis Association organised Pacific Southwest Championships (the total prize money offered to the women was $7,500 compared to $50,000 for the men). Ms King managed to convince the company Philip Morris to sponsor a parallel event that became the Virginia Slims Circuit. It was this act of revolt that eventually led to the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973. Billie Jean King also managed to convince the US Open to become the first Grand Slam tournament to give equal prize money to men and women. 1973 was also the year in which Ms King would defeat Bobby Riggs in the famed Battle of the Sexes match, bringing even more attention to women’s tennis. Even as her professional life went from success to success, the forcible outing of her sexuality by one of her former partners caused a major backlash in her career, causing her not only to lose her endorsements, but also forcing her to publicly acknowledge her non-heteronormative sexuality. She became the first sportswoman to ever come out as gay, making it easier for others who came after.
As she turns 75, Billie Jean King has remained an inspiration and a role model for feminists, LGBTQI+ people, tennis players, and sportspersons around the world. Even as much remains to be done for equality in tennis, and indeed, in all sport, Ms King is one of the giants on whose shoulders the feminists of today stand in order to get further.
First Published: Nov 23, 2018 18:26 IST