Five Surprising Facts About Billie Jean King

[Editor’s Note: The following post is part of American Masters’ #InspiringWomanPBS campaign, which highlights the powerful, creative, and innovative women in our lives. Visit the Inspiring Woman page to join the campaign and submit the story of a woman who inspires you.]

1) As a child, she wanted to grow up to be a preacher.
Billie Jean King was born November 22nd 1943 in Long Beach California, the eldest child of Bill and Betty Moffitt. Raised in a conservative Methodist family, Billie Jean was very religious as a child and originally expressed desires to become a preacher. Billie Jean’s mother was predominantly a homemaker, but took part time jobs selling Tupperware and Avon products while her father was an engineer for the local fire department.

2) She was denied a tennis scholarship because of her gender.
She attended Los Angeles State College for three years and there she met future husband Larry King, whom she married in 1965. It was here that Billie Jean’s eyes began to open up to the inequalities faced by women in society. As a talented amateur tennis player, she was denied access to a college scholarship simply because she was female. Her first success came in 1961 while still at college when she won the Wimbledon doubles championship with partner Karen Hantze on their first attempt, becoming the youngest team to win and bringing her great acclaim.

3) She played a fundamental role in forming the Virginia Slims Tour
In addition to her incredible tennis record, Billie Jean is also recognized for her struggle for gender equality both on and off the court. She was one of the greatest proponents of equal pay within tennis, as well as a great critic of the U.S. tennis authorities’ promotion of “shamateurism” in the pre-open era. In September 1970 she was one of nine players who broke away from the tennis establishment and signed $1 contracts with tennis promoter Gladys Heldman in Houston. The players’ revolt and subsequent tournament led to the formation of Virginia Slims Tour, which Billie Jean had a fundamental role in forming, helping to obtain financial backing from commercial sponsors and promoting the tour. This was the birth of women’s professional tennis.

4) She was the first woman to be named “Sportsperson of the Year” by Sports Illustrated
In 1972, Billie Jean was named Sports Illustrated ‘Sportsperson of the Year’, the first woman to be honored as such. In 1974, she created the Women’s Sports Foundation, which aimed to provide opportunities for female participation in sport.

5) She is close friends with Elton John, who wrote a hit song about her work
Billie Jean has spent much of her later years devoted to helping younger tennis players access the sport, and continues to work on the foundations put in place by the passage of Title IX. In 2009, Billie Jean was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in American society. She is a continuing supporter of LGBT rights in America and is a long-time friend of Elton John, who wrote “Philadelphia Freedom” in her honor. She also serves on the board of John’s charity, the Elton John AIDS foundation.