Billie Jean King Wins Again

The following is a guest post by Susan Ware, author of Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports.

As part of the research for my 2011 biography of Billie Jean King, I watched a video of “The Battle of the Sexes,” which took place fifty years ago on September 20, 1973. There it all was: the pre-match hoopla at the Houston Astrodome, Bobby Riggs in his Sugar Daddy warmup jacket, Billie Jean King being carried in on a throne, color commentator Rosie Casals jousting with Howard Cosell. And then there was a tennis match to be played. Even though I knew the outcome, I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, just as I had been when I watched it in real time. Would she clutch? Why was she doublefaulting? What if Riggs was just pretending to be tired? After three tense sets, she prevailed 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 and women—and many men—breathed a collective sigh of relief.   

            Billie Jean King’s decision to play Bobby Riggs was a conscious political act. She always realized that the match was bigger than just tennis, and she was willing to put her hard-won credibility on the line to prove the point that women deserved just as much respect as men. Even though the outcome now seems preordained, at the time people really felt it could go either way. King knew what was at stake: “I just had to win.”

            Whenever I talk about my book, the first question I am invariably asked is whether I interviewed Billie Jean King, and the answer is yes. At a Women’s Sports Foundation event in Boston in 2007, King took time to talk to yet another in the long line of journalists and writers who have been wanting a piece of her since she burst on the tennis scene in the 1960s. Even though the interview produced no fresh insights, it allowed me to experience firsthand her charismatic energy and passion for history, as well as watch her use her celebrity to work the crowd. This relatively brief interaction definitely shaped the perspective I brought to my book. 

Whenever I talk about my book, the first question I am invariably asked is whether I interviewed Billie Jean King, and the answer is yes

            I have written quite a few biographies, but Billie Jean King is the only subject I have tackled who is still alive. It was hard not to feel she was figuratively looking over my shoulder while I wrote. I always envisioned Game, Set, Match as a “life and times” biography that put Billie Jean King’s tennis career in the larger historical context of second-wave feminism and the revolution in women’s sports, but I still needed to grapple with her personality and the priorities that drove her activism. While I consider my book a sympathetic portrait, there were places where I called King out on statements that she had been making over the years. One had to do with the circumstances surrounding her signing a petition in Ms. in 1973 saying that she had an abortion. Another had to do with her claims, which I debunked, that she had actively lobbied for the passage of Title IX. How would she feel about being challenged in print about stories that she had been repeating for years and probably now believed were true?  

With some trepidation, I sent her a copy of the book when it was published. I never heard a word back. That’s fine, I thought. She’s a busy woman and has other things on her plate. I now think that she did read my book—or at least the ghostwriters for her recent autobiography All In (2021) did. The “proof” is the much more nuanced treatment of her role in the early days of Title IX. Gone are references to lobbying Congress for the original law or playing to uphold Title IX during the Battle of the Sexes, replaced by a more factually accurate account of how Title IX came to be associated with women’s sports and her role in this story. King’s autobiography lacks footnotes or a bibliography, but it is possible that my careful chronological reconstruction of events persuaded her to tone down some of her claims. Pretty cool for a historian to think that her work might have changed the mind of her subject.          

 I have written quite a few biographies, but Billie Jean King is the only subject I have tackled who is still alive.

  I hope Billie Jean King knows how much I respect and admire her. Even if I showed that she wasn’t specifically battling for Title IX in the Battle of the Sexes, she personified its main goals: respect for women athletes and a commitment to leveling the playing field for women in general. Hers is a remarkable record of longevity for a sports figure, male or female. From the perspective of fifty years, I have even more admiration for what she accomplished in that amazing year of 1973, which also included the founding of the Women’s Tennis Association and her successful lobbying for equal prize money at the US Open. Thank you, Billie Jean, for all you have done for women’s sports and feminism in general. Thank you for speaking out on issues of importance. Thank you for still being at it after all these years. We are all in your debt. 

Susan Ware specializes in twentieth-century U.S. history, women’s history, and biography. In addition to acting as general editor of American National Biography, she serves as Senior Advisor to the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.