Susan Ware: Happy National Girls and Women in Sports Day!

In celebration of National Girls and Women in Sports Day, we welcome a guest post from Susan Ware, author of Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s SportsWare explains King’s importance in gender equality both within and beyond the world of sports, even before Title IX.  Here, she recalls her interview with the icon at a Women’s Sports Foundation event, illustrating how King’s legacy and contributions transcend being a star athlete.  A happy NGWSD to all!-Alex.

Sports fans, do you know what day February 2, 2011 is?  It’s the twenty-fifth annual National Girls and Women in Sports Day (NGWSD).   Begun in 1987 to honor volleyball star Flo Hyman who had died tragically at age thirty-one the year before, the event has become a nationwide celebration of the accomplishments and participation of girls and women in all aspects of American sports.  It is also a chance to focus attention on the barriers that still remain before women reach true gender equity on and off the field.

Billie Jean King entered the fight for gender equity long before 1987, even before the 1972 passage of Title IX, the federal law which has had a huge impact in opening participation opportunities to girls and women in athletics.  As I detail in Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports, starting in the late 1960s she used her visibility as America’s first female sports superstar to advocate for wider opportunities for women in sports – and in society as a whole.   As the founder of the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974 and still its leading spokesperson, her goal is to ensure that all young girls today have the opportunity to lead active, healthy lives.  As she said on NGWSD last year, “The powerful combination of sports, health and education found in programs administered by organizations like the Women’s Sports Foundation not only directly benefits women and girls today, it lays a foundation for growth for generations to come.”

In 2007 I met Billie Jean King at one of those Women’s Sports Foundation events dedicated to encouraging grass-roots programs and activities for girls, squeezing in a half-hour interview in the midst of her busy schedule of speeches and media appearances.  The event took place on the campus of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and King was the main draw.   Thirty years after her playing days ended, she still was just as passionate about women’s sports as ever – and just as generous in making her sports celebrity available to a cause she believed in.  Her presence would guarantee media coverage for the new program and that was why she made the trip to Boston that day.

Once my place on her crowded schedule was confirmed, I began to wonder what it would be like to meet the person whose career I have followed since I was a teenager and whose life I had been researching for my biography.  First impression:  she’s shorter than I expected, even shorter than I am  (and I joke that I’m only 5’4″ on a good day).  Second impression: celebrity has definitely not turned her into a diva.  Even though she has been answering questions from journalists – and now historians – for almost fifty years, she graciously put me at my ease, gave me her total attention, and made sure that I got a few good quotes (like her conclusion that feminists have a tendency to think “from the neck up”).  After our interview ended, it was fascinating to watch her work the room:  meeting important Women’s Sports Foundation sponsors, signing autographs, lining folks up for special photographs capturing the event (“Where’s Susan?  Let’s get Susan in the picture.”).  Then she used that same charm and charisma on an entire ballroom of supporters and activists, from young girls to their teachers and parents, in support of ensuring equal opportunities for all.  It was a bravura performance, all the more so since she has been doing it for decades.

Billie Jean King’s whole approach to life is giving back:  so much has happened to her personally through tennis that she wants everybody, men and women, to have similar options.   So that is why I am pretty sure that on February 2, 2011, Billie Jean King is out there on the hustings, drumming up support for more athletic opportunities for girls and women and reminding us that despite the huge revolution in women’s sports opportunities that has occurred in her lifetime and ours, there is still a long, long way to go before women reach true gender equity in sport.

Susan Ware is an independent scholar who specializes in twentieth-century U.S. history, women’s history, and biography.

(author photo by Don Ware)