After winning the U.S. Open in 1972, women’s tennis star Billie Jean King took a stand against the unequal prize money between men and women in that year’s tournament. Like previous years, at that year’s rendition of the world renowned tournament (as well as countless other sporting events), female competitors were making significantly less than their male counterparts. In a speech shortly after her victory, King demanded that the women’s tournament’s prize money should increase after learning that the male champion, Ilie Năstase, was making $15,000 more than she was. Just a year later, this dream would come to fruition when the U.S. Open became the first sporting event to offer equal prize money to both men and women. That year, at the Grand Slam (a major tennis championship), both genders played for a prize of $25,000.
The same year, King played Bobby Riggs (former no. 1 male tennis player) in an exhibition match known as the “Battle of the Sexes”. Going into the match, Riggs had allegedly stated that women’s tennis was inferior to men’s tennis, and that King’s emotions would somehow get the best of her solely because she was a woman. Just a few hours later, King triumphed over Riggs with victories in straight sets, marking a historic moment in sports history. While meeting at the net for a handshake, Riggs admitted to underestimating his female opponent.
King’s advocacy goes far beyond the U.S. Open. She has started multiple organizations, and has always been a strong patron for the women’s liberation movement. In 1974, she helped establish the Women’s Sports Foundation which provides girls with access to sports, as well as the womenSports magazine. World TeamTennis (WTT), the first mixed-gender professional sports league, was launched in 1987 due to the continual efforts of King and is still running today.
Last week concluded the 50th U.S. Open since equal pay was promised to male and female competitors. This year, the champions of both the male and female sections of the tournament, Novak Djokavich and Coco Gauff, were awarded 3 million dollars each, making it a record amount. Reflecting on the past 50 years, King stated how grateful she was to be able to touch so many lives. “It gave women self-confidence to ask for what they want and need because we’re taught not to…” King said, referring to her match against Riggs.
In honor of this half-century milestone, King was celebrated and honored by former first lady Michelle Obama. “Billie Jean teaches us that when things lie in the balance, we all have a choice to make. We can either wait around and accept what we’re given. We can sit silently and hope someone else fights our battles. Or we can make our own stand,” Obama beamed. Tennis as a whole was also recognized by Obama for raising the bar that is women’s sports.
Along with this celebration came a time of acceptance that the fight for gender-equality is an ongoing process that still requires work. King described it as, “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and you win it in every generation.” Though it might be a long time before complete change comes about, it is important to acknowledge the long way women have come and are still continuing to come in everyday on this journey.
Thanks to King and her endless fight against discrimination, society has come a long way since 1973. From her equal rights activism to her involvement in LGBTQ affairs, she is someone we can all learn from on how to accept one another under the face of scrutiny.