I was seven years old in 1973 when Billie Jean King beat the socks off Bobby Riggs in the infamous “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match. Riggs, a Wimbledon singles champion, had described himself as a male chauvinist pig who whole-heartedly opposed feminism. As proof, he once said, “If a woman wants to get in the headlines, she should have quintuplets.” Nearly 50 million people watched on television as Billie Jean showed him what true feminine power looked like: 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
With that win—along with 12 Grand Slam titles, 16 Grand Slam women’s double titles, and 11 Grand Slam mixed doubles titles—Billie Jean led the way for girls and women to pursue sports for fun and as professionals. It was an extraordinary time in our history. With contributions from great female athletes and the 1972 passing of Title IX, which opened up school sports for girls in the U.S., suddenly, it was okay to get dirty, to be competitive, and to sweat! She may not have had children of her own, but I like to think of Billie Jean as the “mother” of all future female tennis players. We witness the fantastic athletic prowess of the Williams Sisters today in part because Billie Jean gave birth to our possibilities.
In 2009, Billie Jean was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition for her work as an advocate for women’s rights and for the LGBT community. As part of the presentation, President Obama said, “This is a chance for me—and for the United States of America—to say ‘Thank you’ to some of the finest citizens of this country and of all countries.”
Thank you, Billie Jean, for being an extraordinary role model.
Kathleen Guthrie is a Northern California–based freelance writer. She’s finding inspiration in the stories of many of our “cheroes” (heroes who are childfree) as we celebrate National Women’s History Month.