Billie Jean King is a former World No. 1 tennis player, with 39 Grand Slam titles. But her record extends far beyond the tennis court.
In 1970, after competing in the Italian Open and winning the women’s singles champion, she received $600 in prize money while the men’s singles champion received $3,500 – almost six times the amount of prize money she earned. This prompted Billie Jean along with 8 other female tennis players to form the ‘Original 9’. Going against the United States Tennis Association, they formed their own tour. This eventually evolved into what we know today as the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).
A few years later, Billie Jean King testified before Congress advocating for the passage of Title IX. This law, which passed in 1972, ensures that anyone – regardless of gender – has equal access to federally funded educational opportunities and programs, including sports.
In 1973, at just 29 years old, she won the legendary Battle of the Sexes tennis match against Bobby Riggs. The nationally televised event, with an estimated 90 million viewers worldwide, helped to shape the future of women in sports.
Named one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century” by Life magazine and a 2009 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Billie Jean King is the founder of the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative and co-founder of World TeamTennis. Along with founding the WTA, she also founded the Women’s Sports Foundation, dedicated to creating leaders by ensuring all girls have access to sports.
In recognition of the 45th Anniversary of Title IX, we chatted with the icon herself.
In 1970, you started a group called the ‘Original 9’ in response to inequities women in tennis were facing. What was so powerful about this group of women coming together?
We had hoped to have men and women come together around this issue, so the Original 9 was actually our “Plan B” but it was our life-changing moment. We stood our ground and drew a line in the sand. We risked our careers and our livelihoods so that any young girl – if she was good enough – would have a place to compete, would be celebrated for her accomplishments and not just for her looks, and could make a living playing the sport we love.
How did forming this group pave the way for the Women’s Tennis Association?
The Original 9 represents the birth of women’s professional tennis as we know it today. Who knows what would have happened with women’s tennis if there had been no Original 9…
Without the commitment of this group of women, there would be no Women’s Tennis Association and there would not be a WTA Tour as we know and love it today.
Title IX was passed into law on June 23, 1972. Why was this so important for women’s equality?
Signed by President Richard Nixon, Title IX is one of the most important pieces of legislation passed in the 20th century and is important for all genders. This ensures there can be no discrimination based on gender and that has opened the doors for everyone to get an education and become successful contributors to society.
Title IX is one of the most important pieces of legislation passed in the 20th century.
What was your role in moving this legislation forward?
Along with several others, I testified before Congress to support the passage of Title IX. But the real heroes and sheroes were Congresswoman Edith Green, who originated the concept of Title IX and was known as Mrs. Education, Congresswoman Patsy Mink and Senator Birch Bayh. They were responsible for moving Title IX through Congress. Today, the Women’s Sports Foundation has accepted the responsibility of being the guardians of Title IX to protect for future generations.
What were the challenges of being a female athlete before Title IX?
When I went to college, which was before Title IX, I had no scholarship and worked two jobs, while my male tennis player friends had full scholarships at my university and other colleges and universities. It was based on gender and not on ability.
A year after Nixon signed Title IX, you faced off against Bobby Riggs in the 1973 Battle of the Sexes. Why was the match so significant?
It was a tennis match on the outside, but the Battle of the Sexes was really about social change.
What did it mean to you, personally?
There was so much pressure for me to win and I felt if I lost the match, I would hurt women’s professional tennis and I might damage the progress being made with the women’s movement. I wanted to change the hearts and minds of our society to more closely reflect the legislation of Title IX. It was a lofty goal, but a worthy one and I knew if I could win the match, it would open new doors for women and change men.
I knew if I could win the match, it would open new doors for women and change men.
Beating Bobby Riggs showed the world that…
Almost every day of my life, I have been told by women that my victory gave them the confidence to ask for a raise, to make improvements in their own life and the courage to take control of their own destiny. Men have told me the match changed the way they raised their daughters and how they want to make sure their daughters and their sons have equal right and opportunities for growth in all phases of their lives.
You started the Women’s Sports Foundation just two years after Title IX passed. Why were you motivated to start a Foundation?
Women – especially women in sports – were underserved. We needed a unifying voice and we needed an organization committed to protecting Title IX. We accepted that role and now, more than four decades later, the Foundation continues to help and advocate for future generations of female athletes. We have given more than $80 million in grants to athletes and funding for local programming to get inactive girls active and remain true to our commitment to protect Title IX.
Today, what are the core initiatives of the Women’s Sports Foundation?
The Women’s Sports Foundation is the leading authority on the participation of women and girls in sports and is dedicated to creating leaders by ensuring girls access to sports. Our work shapes public attitude about women’s sports and athletes, builds capacities for organizations that get girls active, ensures equal opportunities for girls and women through research and Title IX advocacy, and supports physically and emotionally healthy lifestyles. The Women’s Sports Foundation has relationships with more than 1,000 of the world’s elite female athletes and is recognized globally for its leadership, vision, expertise, and influence.
How does success on the court inspire girls and women off the court?
For me, it is all about being a positive role model and a supportive person who can help others develop leadership skills and other positive attributes such as increased self-confidence and resiliency.
The Battle of the Sexes movie will be in theaters this September. What do you want people to learn from watching the film – especially the generations that were not yet alive to see the historic match?
First, I hope they enjoy it! Like the match, the movie is not just about the tennis, but more about the personal journeys Bobby and I lived. You will laugh, you will cry and hopefully, you will feel a part of the roller coaster from that period of my life.
Watching Emma Stone portray you, did you learn anything new about yourself?
It reminded me of the struggle we went through to accomplish our goals and how through it all, we never lost our sense of humor. What we were trying to accomplish for tennis, for women, and for society was so much bigger than ourselves.
After seeing the film, is there anything you wish you could tell your younger self?
Live your truth, be your authentic self, dream big and go for it!
What is still left to be done to empower women in sports? What clear actions can we all take to even the playing field?
Our work is far from over. While we have made progress, there is much more to do. I would love it if more young women would be ambitious in all they do with their family, in their community and most of all with themselves. We should all aspire to inspire.