Fit For A King
September 30, 1998
On the 25th anniversary of Billie Jean King's victory over Bobby Riggs, Anne Taylor Fleming examines this momentous tennis match.
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, essayist Anne Taylor Fleming considers an historic tennis match.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Sporting a blue rhinestone tennis dress, she was carried into the Houston Astrodome on a littler. Billie Jean King, the queen mother of women's tennis, had come to defend her gender's honor against a 55-year-old tennis hustler and former Wimbledon champ named Bobby Riggs, who'd been baiting her for years.
Women belong in the kitchen. They should be barefoot and pregnant. That was his shtick. And now he had to defend it in the so-called battle with the sexes.
This was no ordinary match. There were 30,472 screaming fans in the stands. It was a zoo, a circus, at the heart of which was a serious issue. Where did a woman belong and could she, indeed, beat a man? It was September 20, 1973, and the women's movement was in high and contentious gear.
Women had been in the streets, marching, protesting, agitating. Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in athletic programs, had just been passed. The women tennis players had only recently gotten their own tour, thanks largely to King's own efforts.
It was all so new, so exciting, the idea that women could be full tilt competitors in all arenas - courts of law and tennis courts. And Billie Jean King, with her signature glasses and aggressive serve and volley game, was one of the ring leaders, spear carriers, a revolutionary with a racket, a constant agitator for equal prize money for women, and equal respect.
Like a lot of women my age I remember exactly where I was that night - up the street with some other couples at a dinner party. We'd gathered together to watch the match.
That was our whole purpose and all of the women, myself included, were incredibly riled up, cheering Billie Jean on after every volley and every overhead smash, bating our husbands. And when she won, we went cheerily, exuberantly, gloatingly mad over her victory.
This was high stakes stuff. A woman could do it. Billie Jean did it. We could all do it. Flash forward 25 years, where the courts of the U.S. Open were awash this month in expensive young talent. The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, Martina Hingis, gifted and rich beyond belief already as a teen, and the pouty and provocative Anna Kournicova.
These are Billie Jean King's athletic offspring - young women who make more in a year from endorsements and prize money - 15 to 20 million dollars some of them - and the 2 million she made her entire career. If progress can be measured in dollars, certainly there's been a lot of it.
But money isn't the issue, or only part of it. Millions of women now participate in sports at some level, from the most professional and exalted to the local marathon walk for breast cancer. We found in those tumultuous years, when King was so driven and noisy and victorious, not only voices - did we ever find those - but also our body.
It's taken for granted now that young women can and will compete - on soccer fields and baseball diamonds - in kayaks, sailing, and bungee jumping and Everest scaling. Find a sport and you'll find a woman - an exhilarated, sweaty woman, age seven or seventy, who will carry that exhilaration and sense of achievement off the field, or out of the gym, and into the other parts of her life.
Surely, it's hyperbole to suggest that the battle of the sexes single-handedly unleashed this torrent of female athletic activity. But it was unquestionably a symbolic high, a symbolic kick-off point, a point of no return. Billie Jean King knew that with every fiber of her competitive being.
The rest of us watching that night did too. We know it even more now. So at risk of sounding sentimental, a happy and grateful 25th anniversary to the victor!
I'm Anne Taylor Fleming.