Women » Features

Billie Jean King, Forty Years After "Battle of the Sexes"

by Winnie McCroy
EDGE Editor
Wednesday Aug 28, 2013

Forty years have passed since Billie Jean King went up against Bobby Riggs in "The Battle of the Sexes" on September 20, 1973. Her win was a major force in changing the cultural landscape for women, not just in sports but also across the larger culture. Now, as King reaches her 70th birthday, she shares her story in the PBS Thirteen documentary "American Masters Billie Jean King."

"I am thrilled American Masters is choosing to showcase my journey as we celebrate so many historic anniversaries in my ongoing commitment to social justice and equality," said King.

The 90-minute documentary features footage from the time, which had an aging Riggs decrying women's growing role in society, and lambasting King's attempt to win as the first step on a slippery slope to men no longer being allowed to go out for their weekly poker night, fishing trip or campout. The sentiment is so chauvinistically dated as to be laughable, but when comparing it to the rather paltry concrete gains women have made since the '70s, it speaks volumes.

"It was symbolic, but it had a very real effect on women having the courage to go and ask for what they wanted," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the documentary.

Clinton is one of many celebs featured in the documentary who share their perspective on King’s career. Others include tennis legends in their own right, Serena & Venus Williams, plus Maria Sharapova and the members of the Virginia Slims Circuit "Original 9," Rosie Casals, Chris Evert, Margaret Court and more. Also featured are women’s rights pioneer Gloria Steinem, Sir Elton John, Bobby Rigg’s son, and more.

Of course, the 29-year-old King went on to beat the reputed tennis hustler Riggs at "The Battle of the Sexes," which was held in the middle of the Virginia Slims of Houston tournament. Riggs had accepted a lucrative financial offer of $100,000 to play King, but she beat him 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in front of a crowd of 30,492 spectators at the Houston Astrodome.

"I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match," said King. "It would ruin the women’s [tennis] tour and affect all women’s self-esteem."

She swiftly spikes any rumors that Riggs threw the match, saying, "That’s ridiculous! I won, and that’s it. Done. I kicked butt that night and he was furious. He tried his guts out and he wasn’t good enough."

King is quick to note that women tennis players never claimed to be better than men, and Riggs hounded her and other female players until Australian player Margaret Court eventually agreed -- and lost.

After that, said King, "I had to play him. It was the third year of women’s pro tennis, and I was worried about the sport. I wanted to keep Title VIIII strong, to make sure there was no discrimination in sports funding for either boys or girls."

Following the historic win, King founded the Women’s Tennis Association, the Virginia Slims Series (precursor to the WTA Tour), The Women’s Sports Foundation and Women’s Sports magazine, and co-founded World TeamTennis (WTT). King went on to win 39 Grand Slam titles. And women did ask for what they wanted; they asked the U.S. Open to become the first Grand Slam tournament to award equal prize money to men and women.

"We found sponsors to put in the money to make it equal, and we were sending the right message to the world, and we were fortunate enough in 1973 to have had enlightened people with the authority to make this happen," said King, who noted that both the men’s and women’s prize money for this year’s U.S. Open is $2.6 million -- more than she made throughout her entire career.

At one point in the documentary, Riggs speaks of her win in "The Battle of the Sexes" as something that not only changed the world for women and girls, but for boys and young men, who saw that historic match and realized, perhaps for the first time, that women could be as strong as men.

"Those boys grew up, and now they have daughters," King told EDGE. "Men come up to me all the time telling me how it affected them, how they want their sons and daughters to have equal opportunity, and that if they hadn’t seen that they don’t know if they even would have thought of it."

King said that Battle of the Sexes brought men and women together rather than tearing them apart, making equality the goal in life. She said that President Barack Obama spoke of how it influenced the way he viewed his two daughters, noting that people had a very real relationship to the historical moment.

"I was recently with New York Mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, who said that she was 7 years old when it happened. She became very animated, reliving the moment," said King. "And we need to make more professional opportunities for women. You have to see it to be it; young girls need to see women in leadership positions so it’s normal."

The documentary goes back to King as a 12-year-old girl, living in Long Beach, California and playing tennis on public courts with a racket that her father made her pay for by doing odd jobs in the neighborhood. She credits it with making her determined to excel in tennis.

King has few regrets; foremost among those she does have is that she quit playing singles tennis in 1975. "I still had at least one good year of singles and several strong competitive years of doubles left in me, and I wish I had stayed playing for a while longer," she said. King won a total of 129 singles titles, with prize money totaling $1,966,487.

"I’m not anywhere near done with my career, so I don’t think I have yet lived my career highlight," said King. "As far as my tennis career goes, winning three World TeamTennis titles and representing my country as a player and Captain of the Fed Cup teams will always be special moments for me. I am much more interested in competing as part of a team than as an individual."

The documentary also features commentary from "The Battle of the Sexes" trainer Lornie Kuhle. Although King now finds herself in a coaching position, she said, " It is important for any player -- young or old -- to hear their own voice and learn to use their own voice. They need to be part of the process and it always has to be about them and not about the coach or the mentor."

King Yanked Out of Closet, Loses Husband and Endorsements

At the time of that historic match, King was married to Larry King, but soon became the first prominent professional female athlete to be outed as lesbian, after her affair with secretary Marilyn Barnett came to the surface. King acknowledged the affair after Barnett came forward with a May 1981 "palimony" suit." She divorced Larry King in 1987. She had said she wanted to retire from competitive tennis in 1981, but could no longer afford to after the lawsuit.

"I was outed; I never came out," King told EDGE. "It was a very difficult time for me. My mother, who was the most homophobic one of all, always said, ’To thine own self be true.’ I lost all my endorsements, but I guess the truth does set you free eventually."

This champion of the women’s right movement suffered hardships to her tennis career due coming out, saying, "Within 24 hours [of the lawsuit being filed], I lost all my endorsements; I lost everything. I lost $2 million at least, because I had longtime contracts. I had to play just to pay for the lawyers. In three months I went through $500,000. I was in shock. I didn’t make $2 million in my lifetime, so it’s all relative to what you make."

She spoke of the horrible rejection letters she got from former sponsors, and the general lack of support from everyone, even other tennis players like Martina Navratalova. But she noted that at the time, those who wanted to accomplish things couldn’t be out and proud.

"You didn’t talk about it, or you would lose everything -- your family, your job," said King. "Even today there are still states in which you can get fired for being gay. Transgenders have it even worse; they have no recourse. It’s not cut and dry, so I never make a judgment on people for not coming out. I have total compassion for them."

King has since become an iconic leader for the LGBT movement. President Obama chose King as the first woman to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for her work advocating for women’s rights and for the LGBT community.

She is now with her partner Ilana Kloss. The two have residences in New York and Chicago. In the documentary, Sir Elton John promises to sing at King’s wedding, which she admits isn’t a reason in and of itself to marry -- but is a great incentive.

King is very involved in the Women’s Sports Foundation and the Elton John AIDS Foundation, saying, "I believe in the missions of these two organizations because they are about helping others, and making a difference in the lives of those around us."

She has been named one of the "100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century" by Life magazine, and was honored by having the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow, NY, renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. King will join other lesbians of note on Dec. 28-Jan. 4 for Olivia Cruises Virgin Isles Cruise.

"Billie Jean King embodies the art of sports, of humanism and of activism. For more than 50 years, her excellence and example have sparked the way for changes that enrich us all," said Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of American Masters. "Billie Jean’s star on our cultural landscape shines brighter and brighter, with no end in sight."

"American Masters Billie Jean King" premieres nationally at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, September 10 on PBS. For more information, visit pbs.org/americanmasters

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.