The Legend of Billie Jean King – The Battle of the Sexes

This film did the rounds of indy cinemas a few months ago, but has just turned up as part of the BBC’s Storyville series. It is worth seeing just to remind us how much the world has changed for women since the early 60s when women were repeatedly accused of acting like men for wanting a life, or for being good athletes.

There have long been debates in sport as to whether women can compete with men, but when Wimbledon tennis tournament allowed professionals to compete, this gap turned into a yawning canyon, with the men getting £2,000 if they won to women’s paltry £750. It was argued at the time that women didn’t work as hard as the men, playing the best of 3 sets versus best of 5 for the men, but to counterbalance this, more people wanted to watch the women, so they were the real draw cards. Despite the female players complaints, the men’s prizes continued to shoot ahead of those of the women, and growing numbers of tournaments refused entry to women at all, so at the height of the womens’ movement, the world of professional sport was becoming more than ever a boys’ club.

Billie Jean King, then at the height of her fame, helped organise a women only competition, which became the Virginia Slims tournament. The US tennis association threatened to ban them if they went ahead, but they had had enough, and they urged others to join them. Players like Virginia Wade and Margaret Court were unwilling to get involved, so a brave 9 women went ahead with the tour in 1970, to great success, despite the often inadequate facilities at some of the venues, claiming they would play for a single dollar to make their point.

Bobbie Riggs waded into the debate, a 55 year old former winner of all 3 crowns at Wimbledon, but long past his glory days. He wrote to all the top females, challenging them to a contest to prove men were better athletes. Only naïve Australian Margaret Court accepted, and apparently overwhelmed by all the hoopla and hype, played one of the worst games of her career, and spectacularly lost, and the red top press ad a field day, rejoicing in the alleged confirmation of male superiority. Billie Jean King had refused the challenge as she saw no point to it – if she beat a middle aged huckster, what did she gain, and if she lost it would be a disaster.  

But the women’s tournament happened at the same time as huge changes in favour of women – the USA legalised abortion equal pay came in, and there were mass rallies in favour of womens’ rights.  A rival womens tennis association was formed including the less political females like Chris Evert, Yvonne Goolagong and Virginia Wade instead of joining together to improve conditions. 1973 saw Bilie Jean again win Wimbledon, against the young Evert, and winning the triple crown and  a secret meeting was held at the Gloucester Hotel during the tournament in which the top women players at last agreed to form what was effectively a female trade union, the Womens’ Tennis Association. 

Bobby Riggs continued to taunt the women players, claiming men were becoming oppressed by the growing numbers of domineering women, so King eventually agreed to play him. It became a huge media event, to this day the most watched tennis match of all time, with venues bidding to stage it and tv coverage. King refused to be rattled by al the hype, went into near solitary training, getting her mind in shape as much as her physical training. She knew what a disaster it would be if he won again, but she beat him in 3 straight sets.

It was a huge event for the feminist cause, and Riggs disappeared though his son claims he later said, his loss had helped the womens’ cause through all the publicity.

These events, and this film, are not just about sport – it is part of the wider world of equality, as then and now, womens’ rights are interlinked with racial equality, for which women have been incredibly active foot soldiers over the centuries. The victory for King showed that women could be physically strong, rather than mere ornaments to men, and as she says, that is one of the greatest achievements. At the time of the match, she had discovered she was gay, so her marriage to her husband was coming to a painful end, but marked the start of her becoming a gay icon, so helped yet another worthwhile cause.

The film ends with a series of talking heads of many of today’s top players saying how inspirational King had been, and her battle for equal pay had made their own careers possible.

To date, tennis is the only sport where women get anything like equal pay. Sometimes sport matters more than it seems.    


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