Arts & Culture

Appreciating Billie Jean King’s contribution to second-wave feminism

4 min read

In a stately room in the Barker Center, flanked by portraits of famous men, Billie Jean King holds court.

Not physically. She’s the topic of discussion, the name on everyone’s lips. One would think this were the after party of her notorious 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match with Bobby Riggs, the match she won and changed the face of women’s sports — and feminism — forever.

“What she proved that night in a courageous performance of physical prowess and nerves of steel,” said biographer and Warren Center fellow Susan Ware on Monday (Nov. 17), “is that women did not choke. Women were not frail and weak. Women could face pressure and take it — live on national television — with no takeovers.”

Reading excerpts from her work-in-progress on the revolutionary athlete in a Humanities Center lecture titled “Sport Matters: Billie Jean King and Second Wave Feminism,” Ware noted that King’s decision to play Riggs was a “conscious political act.”

Respondent Donna Lopiano, president and founder of Sports Management Resources (and recently named one of the most powerful people in professional sports), agreed with Ware, saying that the great tennis pro was one of her era’s pre-eminent figures for social change and women’s rights, affectionately nicknaming her a “bulldozer.”

“She always wanted to do something with her life beyond the traditional route of marriage and children,” said Ware, adding that in the 1960s King aspired toward a self-freedom that didn’t yet exist for women anywhere. King, who grew up in a strict household in conservative Orange County, Calif., found a husband, Ware said, who was “liberated enough to envision marriage on their own terms.” Their marriage later transformed into a business partnership, and King went on to question her sexuality and come out as a lesbian.

While her personal battles were revolutionary in their own right, it is King’s professional advocacy and tenacity she’s best-known for. With the emergence of “second-wave” feminism in the late 1960s and ’70s, King became a charismatic figurehead for the cause, almost by default. “I think the feminist movement needed Billie Jean King a lot more than she needed them,” said Ware, noting that the athlete’s initial reaction to second-wave feminism was negative.

“She was not radical in any way,” Lopiano interjected. “She played that middle as well as you can play the middle.”

King was not solely an advocate for women, but for equality among all people, in sports and beyond. “She was,” Ware said repeatedly, “for everybody.” She soon realized that her fame was an invaluable asset for speaking out on issues such as abortion, equal pay for equal work, and more.

“She used her celebrity status to play the kind of advocacy politics that women are now only beginning to play,” added Lopiano. King’s activism is ongoing: She has recently been named Global Mentor for Gender Equality by the United States Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

“Even though the feminist movement quickly passed,” Ware said, “it left in place a radically different American society, one where an ambitious and talented superstar could create a successful career by devoting her attention to the causes she cared most about: women, women’s sports, and the connections between them.”

Yet by today’s standards, King’s brave and defiant legacy seems lost upon the current generation of athletes — male and female — whom Ware sees as owing their success to the efforts of King. After all, it was King who lobbied for equal sports prizes for women and worked to brand tennis a “sport of the people,” the way it is often viewed today. Ware believes the legacy of King needs to be rescued from “historical limbo,” expressing surprise at how often she’s asked if King is still alive.

“Billie Jean King is in danger of becoming yet another figure elbowing for space in our collective memory,” said Ware. And with many aspects of professional and collegiate women’s athletics still unequal to their male counterparts, Ware added, King’s advocacy and goals continue to be relevant.

“It wasn’t enough for her to play,” Lopiano said, noting that celebrity athletes are rarely politically inclined. “She stepped out of her skill zone to comment in other arenas.”

“American history is full of iconic sports heroes,” Ware said, “but until Billie Jean King they were all men. Sports celebrity was like a boys’ tree house with a ‘no girls allowed’ sign posted outside.”