I’ll tell the story of “The Battle of the Sexes” the way it was told to me as a little girl on my way to my first national horse show. My father explained to me:
Even after Title IX gave women athletes the rights to proper funding, the public did not have the same reverence for women’s sports as they did for men’s. Nowhere was this more apparent than in tennis. Former tennis star Bobby Riggs notoriously disrespected women and he pretty much suggested that women’s tennis was a joke. He challenged superstar lady-player Billie Jean King to a match to prove this point, claiming that he could defeat any woman around with minimal effort. Much of the American public mocked King, musing, “How could a woman possibly beat Riggs?”
But she did win, and women everywhere rejoiced.
This week, on the 40th anniversary of King’s victory, Time takes a moment to remember what she did for all women’s sports on that very special day in 1973. The magazine ruffles through its September 10th, 1973 reportage of the cover story.
It takes a look back at the stakes, which could not have been higher for women. Time wrote, “Billie Jean must avenge the legions of women in chains, real or imaginary, who consider Riggs a male of supernaturally loathsome porcinity.” Ms. Magazine sent representatives to root for the female athlete who could singlehandedly prove the respectability and validity of women’s sports. All of America tuned in to the game, to see once and for all if the Women’s Movement would conquer gender stereotypes and discrimination in sports.
The forty-year-old Time issue displays a caricatured Bobby Riggs, complete with a badge that reads “male chauvinist pig”. In an interview, Riggs proved himself worthy of this title when he stated, “Women’s tennis is so far beneath men’s tennis.” To him, King was a little girl who didn't stand a chance, and he explained, “After watching the girls at Wimbledon I may even be overconfident. You may want to ask me if I have a game plan for Billie Jean. I don’t need a game plan.”
But in her own interview, Billie Jean knew what was up, and she taunts him right back: “I don’t want to lose to this guy. I don’t want to lose to anybody—but Bobby Riggs? Ugh.” And she did show Riggs, and the disbelieving American public, that women could be great on the court. With rows of male fans holding “signs that read WHISKEY, WOMEN, AND RIGGS and WHO NEEDS WOMEN,” she shifted from her normal aggressive playing strategy and defensively stuck to the baseline, hitting low, swift volleys that were impossible to return.
You go, girl!!
Although critics may still try to discredit the match with totally lame excuses for Riggs' game, the fact remains that Billie Jean King won fair and square. In doing so, she did a great thing for women. Thanks to King, girls can go to tennis matches, horse shows, or any other sporting event knowing that anything is possible. That she can do anything a man can do.
Thanks to Time and my dad, Cass Sunstein
Images via Here and Now, Time, and A Celebration of Women