Trailblazers: A History of Grit and Perseverance

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Few tennis players -- if any -- accomplished more than Billie Jean King, the pride of Long Beach, California.

She won 129 titles, 39 of them in Grand Slam singles, doubles and mixed doubles. There were seven (count them), seven Federation Cup titles representing America; today the annual global competition bears her name. As does the United States Tennis Association’s sprawling, sparkling facility in New York.


But in the context of history, tennis was merely her day job. You can make the argument that King belongs on a very short list on the people who have had a profound impact in the struggle for gender equality.



She was a unifying figure on the Virginia Slims tour, founded by Gladys Heldman and sponsored by Philip Morris. And then King rallied the troops at the Gloucester Hotel on June 21, 1973. And so, the Women’s Tennis Association was born. Patricia Bostrom was part of that life-altering meeting.

“Billie Jean went to the Grand Slams and said, ‘We need equal prize money,’” Bostrom said. “And the Grand Slam tournaments said, ‘No, no, no -- we can’t do that.’ And so finally, with the support of all of us [WTA members], she went to the US Open and said, ‘I will not play unless there’s equal prize money.’ She’s No.1 in the world, she has all of us behind her,’ and the US Open said, `Yes, we will have equal prize money for women.’

“This notion of equal prize money turned into equal pay for women. So now, all of a sudden, people were asking why there wasn’t equal pay for all women. So what she’s done, with equal prize money for Wimbledon, I believe, has gone on to help equal pay for women everywhere.”

Billie Jean King's lasting impact on the game

Later that same year, King struck another, more emotionally charged blow for equality. At the age of 29, she beat Bobby Riggs, a flagrant male chauvinist, in the “Battle of the Sexes.” More than 90 million watched it on television, the biggest audience ever for a tennis match. It was a stark statement in three, somber straight sets.


“I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,” King said. “It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem. To beat a 55-year-old guy was not thrilling for me. The thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.”


And fostering the idea that women, at the very least, were men’s equal. In 1975, King was “Time Magazine’s” Person of the Year, and she went on to collect the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among many, many other honors.

There was a clarity to her vision, encapsulated by three basic themes:


1)    Any girl that was born in this world, if she’s good enough, will finally have a place to compete.

2)    That women be appreciated for our accomplishments, not only for their looks.

3)    To make a living, playing the sport they love.


For King, the struggle continues. At the age of 79, she’s still a dynamic agent for change.


“We’re still the leading global sport for women but we have to keep moving forward.”- Billie Jean King