Billie Jean King personifies tennis. Billie Jean King is tennis. In 1961, she won her first Wimbledon championship at the age of 17. From there she went on to win a total of 39 Grand Slam singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles over the next 16 years on the courts. She was ranked the number one tennis player in the world for five years. Her incredible talents were invaluable in shining the spotlight on women’s tennis and all women’s sports. She defined the role of tennis from the 1960s through the 1980s and helped earn women the right to compete in almost any sport on an equal playing field with men. She proved that women can hold their own in the world of athletics and deserve to be there. She also was a crusader in the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, helping to make great strides toward achieving equality for all women.
King became an enduring symbol of women’s sports, making the most of her tools, such as Title IX, a federal law passed in 1972, intended to put an end to sexual discrimination in educational institutions. In fact, the Title IX law had its greatest impact by opening opportunities for women in sports. Billie Jean King saw that opportunity and used the law to its greatest benefit in helping women achieve access to equal sports opportunities in the athletic arena.
Amidst her many accolades, Billie Jean King is probably best known for winning the infamous “Battle of the Sexes,” in 1973. In a highly publicized event, former tennis great and self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig,” Bobby Riggs, 55, challenged the 29-year-old King to a match that he claimed would put an end to the question of the validity of women’s sports, and all women’s rights, purposely inciting crowds with his cutting remarks. The event became both a tennis match and a national debate about the changing roles of women in current society.
Riggs fueled the days leading up to the match with inflammatory comments like, “The best way to handle women is to keep them pregnant and barefoot.” Another hair-raiser was, “I’m going to beat Billie Jean King in the match and set back the Women’s Lib movement about another 20 years.”
On September 20, 1973, an estimated 50 million people watched the match, at the time the largest audience to watch a tennis match in history. King entered the Houston Astrodome court dressed as Cleopatra, being carried on a lavish bed aloft the well-muscled shoulders of men dressed as ancient Egyptian slaves. Riggs entered on a rickshaw, drawn by buxom models dressed in slinky outfits. When the match was over, King had soundly beat Riggs in three straight sets, 6 –4, 6–3, 6–3, and scored a major victory for female athletes and housewives alike, empowering women across the country.
“I know that when I die, nobody will be talking about me,” King once said. “They’ll all just be standing around telling each other where they were the night I beat Bobby Riggs.” Despite her innumerable successes on the court, Billie Jean King earned herself almost as many accolades off the courts. Those accomplishments include:
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian honor in our country and is given to those who “make an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
Of the 16 recipients who received the medal in 2009, including the likes of genius Stephen Hawking and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the White House issued the following excerpt about Billie Jean King from its formal press release:
Billie Jean King was an acclaimed professional tennis player in the 1960s and 1970s, and has helped champion gender equality issues not only in sports, but in all areas of public life. King beat Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, then the most viewed tennis match in history. King became one of the first openly lesbian major sports figures in America when she came out in 1981. Following her professional tennis career, King became the first woman commissioner in professional sports when she and her husband, Lawrence, co-founded and led the World Team Tennis (WTT) League.
Although not fully her own accomplishment, few people have earned the respect she received when Sir Elton John, the famous singer and pianist known for his music around the world, wrote his number one hit song, “Philadelphia Freedom,” about Billie Jean King.
King was born Billie Jean Moffitt on November 22, 1943, in Long Beach, California, in a modest Methodist family. She was named for her often-absent father, Bill, who was in the navy. He was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, teaching physical education to stateside troops. Her mother, Betty, kept up the family home in Long Beach until her husband was released from active duty, and together the family lived out the American dream. Billie Jean’s brother, Randall (Randy) James, was born in 1948. He went on to become a relief pitcher for the professional base-ball team, the San Francisco Giants.
At first, Billie Jean was interested in sports like softball, but her parents thought she should get involved in something more ladylike. So at the age of 11, Billie Jean bought her first tennis racquet, using $8 she had saved up from doing odd jobs. When her mother picked her up from her first tennis lesson, Billie Jean announced, “I am going to be number one in the world!” She was right. Five times. She married Lawrence King on September 17, 1965, becoming Billie Jean King, the name that would soon be known around the world. Billie Jean and Larry, as he was known, were married for 22 years. They divorced in 1987.
Billie Jean King turned pro in 1968, a year in which she won the U.S. Open women’s singles title. She had won the women’s singles at Wimbledon in 1966 and took both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open women’s singles titles in 1967. Of her combined 39 championship titles, King won 13 of them in the women’s singles divisions—6 at Wimbledon, 4 at the U.S. Open, 1 at the French Open, and 2 at the Australian Open. Out of the 39 titles she took home, 20 of them were from Wimbledon.
In 1974, Billie Jean and Larry cofounded the World Team Tennis (WTT) league, one of the first organizations dedicated to promoting a coed format of athletics. The WTT used a format that featured teams comprised of two men, two women, and one coach. Each match consisted of five sets—one men’s single, one women’s single, two doubles, and one mixed double. The WTT was well known for many innovative elements in addition to the promotion of its coed format, particularly for introducing the instant replay.
Trouble arose in 1979. Billie Jean King asked her former personal secretary, Marilyn Barnett, to move out of King’s half-million dollar house in Malibu, California. Barnett was no longer acting as King’s personal secretary and had even returned to her previous employer, the Jon Peters Beauty Salon in Beverly Hills.
Barnett refused. She threatened King with copies of credit card receipts showing that the Kings had paid all of her expenses and that this entitled to her to half the value of the Malibu home she had been living in since 1974 as well.
In 1981, when King balked and refused to ante up, Barnett sued for palimony, alleging she and Billie Jean had carried on an intimate relationship for years in the 1970s. Palimony refers to a 1976 California court decision, ruling that people who lived together and then split up were bound by prior agreements about division of property and income, even if they were only verbal contracts.
King was overwhelmed by the barrage of media attention now shining upon her. After she had been “outed,” she had to deal with a lifetime of rumors about her sexuality that had been thrown her way throughout her career. To this point, she had managed to avoid any scandal regarding the issue. Inappropriate gender preferences in the 1970s and 1980s were much less forgivable than being caught using drugs or being unfaithful might have been.
At first, King outright denied the allegations. Two days later, she admitted that the affair had taken place, but absolutely refused to label herself a lesbian. For all that she had worked to accomplish, that was not what she want to be remembered for. It was not until the late 1990s, in fact, some 17 years after the Barnett incident, that Billie Jean King officially admitted to being a lesbian.
Larry King stood by his wife throughout the Barnett fiasco, pledging to stay by her side and support her every step of the way. The case went to trial and was thrown out. The judge likened Barnett’s case to “something close to extortion.” But despite their close relationship, Larry and Billie Jean eventually divorced in 1987.
In 2006, HBO aired King filmed a candid documentary of Billie Jean King’s life, called “Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer.” In it, she focused on honestly discussing her lifelong struggles in dealing with her lesbianism and the ability to accept it, and with coming to terms with her parents over her sexual choices.
In 2011, at the age of 68, Billie Jean King served on the boards of the Women’s Sports Foundation and the Elton John AIDS Foundation. She got involved with the Arthritis Foundation after she had both knees replaced in 2010. Billie Jean King had battled osteoarthritis since she was in her twenties.
Billie Jean King is not just a tennis champion. She is a role model for women everywhere. In her words, she is a “shero.” The key to her success, though, is that she is a woman who hates to lose. She has been quoted as saying, “Victory is fleeting. Losing is forever.”
King, Billie Jean. Pressure Is a Privilege: Lessons I ’ve Learned from Life and the Battle of the Sexes. New York: LifeTime Media, 2008.
Roberts, Selena. A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs, and the Tennis Match That Leveled the Game. New York: Crown, 2005.
Schwartz, Larry. “ESPN.com: Billie Jean Won for All Women.” ESPN: The World-wide Leader in Sports. ESPN Internet Ventures, 2007. Web. September 9, 2011. http://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00016060.html
Ware, Susan. Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 2011.
“WTT News.” Welcome To WTT. WTT, August 8, 2009. Web. September 9, 2011. http://www.wtt.com/page.aspx?article_id=621