I recently watched the “Battle of the Sexes” film with Steve Carrell and Emma Stone. The scene of the 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King felt like it could have taken place yesterday (notwithstanding some of the clothes and haircuts). As the film depicted spectators flowing in holding signs proudly proclaiming themselves as “male chauvinist pigs,” it made me think about the rise in public displays of White Supremacy at Trump rallies, the women’s marches in January of 2017, and where we are now in terms of women’s sports, gender equity, and LGBTQ rights.
According to the film, Billie Jean King agreed to play in the circus created by Bobby Riggs, to stand up for gender equality and to call attention to the importance of equal pay for women on and off the court. I was born in 1971 and remember hearing my parents talk about this match when I was older and started playing tennis myself. My father, a tennis player, had a deep respect and appreciation for both players and admired King’s strength and ability to prevail in that match. This mattered to me as a young female athlete in the 80's.
Billie Jean King opened the door for many female athletes to earn and achieve more than would have been possible without her strong stance in the early 70’s. In addition to winning the “Battle of the Sexes”, she was a strong advocate for Title IX. This law has radically changed the athletics opportunities for women in the 40 years since it passed. It hasn’t eradicated gender bias in schools or sports, but it has changed the culture and expectations for participation and resources in high school and college athletics.
I was pleasantly surprised about how much the film attended to her first relationship with a woman and her internal struggle with this aspect of her identity as she publicly challenged the men’s tennis establishment about equal pay and support for women players. I teared up several times as I felt her struggle to stand up for gender equality and the burden she bore at trying to be the “ideal” model of a female athlete. She was deeply aware of the public value placed on being married to a supportive husband, wearing fashionable sportswear, having good hair at her matches, and being a strong athlete who was as “exciting as the men.”
In 1981, she was the first female athlete to be outed as a lesbian. This was due to a ‘palimony’ suit brought by Marilyn, her first female partner who was depicted in the film. She publicly came out on her own terms later and became a strong and vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights. I believe she made it more possible for other women to be more open about their own identities including other trailblazers Martina Navratilova, k.d. lang, Melissa Etheridge, and Ellen Degeneres. These women all had an impact on me and my own coming out and I am grateful for their strength and leadership as we continue to build on the foundation they helped build for gender equity, equal pay, and LGBTQ rights. Role models matter.
Title IX is being dismantled. Female athletes still have to fight for fair pay. The US just voted with 12 other countries in the UN against condemning countries who punish homosexuality with the death penalty. The Department of Justice is arguing to allow same-sex discrimination the SCOTUS gay wedding cake case. There is still much work to be done. We will continue striving to create a better world for people of all genders and sexual identities and the “Battle of the Sexes” was an important moment in this culture shift.
Thank you, Billie Jean.