It was dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes” when Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs challenged each other to a wrenching game of tennis in 1973.
And while the cameras reveled in the opportunity, to King it was more than a media event. It was a mission.
“When I played Bobby Riggs, we were on the third year of women’s professional tennis. It was such a tenuous position,” King said. “We were labeled … ‘women libbers’ … I mean, it was so difficult.”
How difficult and how revolutionary her mission became will be illuminated when PBS’s “American Masters” airs “Billie Jean King” at 9 p.m. Tuesday.
While the nation cheered the male-female contest, King found it an ordeal. “It was not fun. Also I knew the implications. I knew what it stood for. It was very symbolic of the women’s movement and what we were trying to do.
“Title IX had just been passed the year before … So I wanted to start to change the hearts and minds of people to match up the legislation of Title IX, ” she said.
Title IX banned sex discrimination in any arena involving federal funding. “In those days, I knew it took three generations to change people’s hearts and minds,” she said.
“Back in 1973, I mean, a woman could not even get a credit card without her husband’s signing,” said King, who’ll be 70 on Nov. 22.
“You have to remember, when I played Bobby Riggs, there wasn’t one woman, not one woman sports reporter. Not one. And thank God I got along great with the guys.
“In fact, every press conference I always say, ‘OK, before we start, what is feminist? What does a feminist mean to you?’ And they go, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’”
“So I said, ‘I want you to be clear on what my meaning of it is. It’s choice, it means equal, equality for boys and girls. That’s what it means to me.’”
King was not only facing prejudice on the court, she was facing it in life. Ten years after her joust with Riggs (which she won) she faced an even greater challenge when it was revealed that she was gay.
Typically, King took the offensive and called a news conference to announce her sexual orientation. “I was outed,” she said. “My lawyer, Dennis Wasser, and my publicist, Pat Kingsley, thought I shouldn’t do it. I said, ‘I have to. I have to tell the truth,’”
So how does she see the athletes in tennis today? “I would love to be able to hit a forehand like they do, or a backhand. First of all, their bodies are so much more dynamic and free.
“And I could just be much more myself today.”