Wed. Jan 26th, 2022

“What kind of legacy do you want to leave in your life?” asked the 61-year-old womenʼs pro-tennis legend who spoke to women studies students last Friday. Speaker, Billie Jean King, the winner of six Wimbledon singles championships and four U.S. Open titles, encouraged students to change the world as she shared her struggle for womenʼs rights in female athletics. King established the first successful womenʼs professional tennis tour. She was also named in 1990 as one of Life magazineʼs “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century,” among other honors. “How did I ever get into tennis? I met somebody who changed the course of my life forever,” said King. That person was Susan Williams. The two met in the fifth grade. Williams asked King if she wanted to play, and King responded, “Whatʼs tennis?” After her first free lesson at the public park, King decided that she wanted to be the number one tennis player in the world. At 11-years-old King knew what she wanted to do in her life. “I didnʼt understand why everyone else didnʼt know what they wanted to do,” said King.

As a female, King felt very invisible. “If I can be number one… I still couldnʼt get the same kind of attention the number one guy could,” said King. King spent her whole life trying to create equal opportunities for women, and she is most famous for her defeat of Bobby Riggs. Riggs, a 1939 Wimbledon champion, was 55 years old and King was 29 years old at the time of their “Battle of the Sexes” match in September 1973. Riggs continually challenged King, and after he defeated the number one player Margaret Court on Motherʼs day 1973, King, number two at the time, accepted the challenge. The match was a national broadcast. At the time, there were only three networks and PBS on television. “This was Thursday night, this was prime time, this was big,” said King. “The more you know about history, the more you know about yourself,” said King. “Iʼm pre-Title IX,” she said.

Title IX is a part of the 1972 U.S. Education Act. Under this legislation, no person can be denied a federally funded activity or educational program based on their gender. “I couldnʼt get a scholarship because of my gender, even though I was the number one person in the country,” said King. King also spoke out for womenʼs rights to earn comparable money in tennis and other sports. “I won two Wimbledons and got [nothing]. Now itʼs a million a piece,” said King. She was the first female athlete to win more than $100,000 in one season, and eventually earned $1,966,487 in career prize money. King noted the importance of economic independence. “I used to talk to the girls about this but Iʼm telling everybody,” King said. “If you donʼt accept financial responsibility for yourself right now, then youʼre kidding yourself,” said King.

As for endorsements, King said that they are mostly for the parents of young athletes. “Parents are money hungry,” King said, adding that when a 14-year-old is taking care of the whole family, the power in the family is shifted. In the aspect of getting endorsements, King said that female body image plays a big role. “90 percent of the media is controlled by men. Girls are still about sex. Men are very visual,” said King. She said that by the time a young woman is 17-years-old, sheʼs had 250,000 commercial images telling her how to look.

“You can be a not-good-looking guy and still get great endorsements,” King said. “People told me I couldnʼt be number one wearing glasses…Outer success and inner success- when they donʼt match up, your life does not go right.” “[King] has prominently affected the way 50 percent of society thinks and feels about itself in the vast area of physical exercise,” said writer Frank Deford in Sports Illustrated. “She was instrumental in making it acceptable for American women to exert themselves in pursuits other than childbirth,” said Larry Schwartz on ESPN.com.

Of everything that King went through, she said that her biggest challenge was her sexuality. “Iʼm a lesbian now,” King said. “I used to be-I thought I was-heterosexual. I was married for 20 years to a guy.” King continued, “My parents are homophobic. I thought it was better to see them a little than to see none of them. I lived this lie for so long so I wouldnʼt lose my parents.”

“My goal is to make a difference in your lives, and youʼll go ahead and make a difference in someone elseʼs life,” King said. “Time is at the essence when you are young.

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