Looking Beyond the “Battle of the Sexes”

This June the National Archives is celebrating National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Pride Month, which honors the important contributions that LGBTQ+ Americans have made to U.S. history and culture. Today’s post, from Alyssa Moore in the National Archives History Office, looks at tennis great Billie Jean King.

Billie Jean King is a record-breaking tennis champion. She also is a pioneer in gender equality, an outspoken advocate for equal pay for female athletes, and in 1981, she was the first prominent, professional female athlete to publicly acknowledge her LGBTQ+ identity. It is ironic, then, that despite these accolades, the match for which King is often best remembered is her victory over a 55-year-old man, Bobby Riggs, in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes.”

King was born in Long Beach, CA on November 22, 1943. When she began playing tennis at age 11, King quickly became known for her aggressive playing style as she developed into a hard-hitting net-rusher with superb speed. She made her Grand Slam debut at just 15 years old in 1959 at the U.S. Championships. Though she lost in the first round, Sports Illustrated dubbed King “one of the most promising youngsters on the West Coast,” a statement which King would prove over the course of her career.

King’s dominance on the tennis court is immediately obvious by her staggering achievements. With a career win–loss record of 52–4, King was also the first woman to win $100,000 in a single year. Throughout her career, King won 129 singles titles, and in 1972, she became the fifth woman in tennis history to win the singles titles at all four Grand Slam events. 

She also won a career Grand Slam in mixed doubles and holds a record 20 championships at Wimbledon. In the Federation Cup finals, she was on the winning United States team a total of seven times. In 1972, King became the first tennis player and the first female athlete to ever be named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.

Yet, King is perhaps best remembered as the victor of the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes.” In an exhibition match that attracted frenzied media attention, King defeated Bobby Riggs and silenced skeptics, taking home the $100,000 prize and catapulting women’s tennis and female athletes into the limelight. Riggs was considered the world’s best male tennis player of the 1940s. By the 1970s, he bragged that the women’s tennis game was so inferior to the men’s that a 55-year old man such as himself could beat the top female players. 

After Riggs defeated Margaret Court, he goaded King into accepting his challenge. The match took place with great fanfare at the Houston Astrodome in Texas on September 20, 1973. The 29-year-old King beat Riggs in front of 30,000 spectators and a television audience estimated at 90 million in 37 countries. The “Battle of the Sexes” was a watershed moment in popular culture for women’s tennis and a turning point for female athletes earning greater recognition and respect.

King was also a pioneering force off the court. In 1970, she was one of nine female tennis players who formed the Virginia Slims Circuit, led by World Tennis magazine publisher Gladys Heldman. Seeking to address the significant pay gap in prize money between male and female players, it later became the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), of which King was its first president.

When King won the U.S. Open in 1972, she discovered that she received $15,000 less than the men’s champion, Ilie Năstase. When King declared that she would not play in the US Open again if the prize money was not equal, the following year, the US Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money for both men and women.

In 1974, she, Larry King, and Jim Jorgensen started the Women’s Sports Foundation and founded womenSports magazine, the first magazine dedicated to covering solely women athletes. In 1977, King joined Susan B. Anthony II, Bella Abzug, and Betty Friedan in accompanying the torch that opened the First National Women’s Conference from Seneca Falls, NY, to Houston.

King was also a trailblazer for LGBTQ+ athletes and continues to advocate for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. She and Larry King met while attending Los Angeles State College (now California State University, Los Angeles). The couple married on September 17, 1965, but divorced in 1987 after King publicly acknowledged a relationship with her secretary, Marilyn Barnett. This made her the first prominent female professional athlete to publicly disclose her sexual orientation.

King later began a relationship with her tennis doubles partner, Ilana Kloss, and they were married by former New York City Mayor David Dinkins on October 18, 2018.

Though King retired in 1984, she continues to receive recognition for both her outstanding tennis career and outspoken advocacy. King was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987, in 1990 Life magazine named her one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century,” and in 2003, the International Tennis Federation presented her with its highest accolade, the Philippe Chatrier Award.

This list of honors continuesin 2006 the site of the U.S. Open was renamed the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. On August 12, 2009, President Barack Obama awarded King the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for her advocacy for the rights of both women and the LGBTQ+ community. And, on August 2, 2013, King was among the first class of inductees into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame.

Beyond the pop culture lightning rod that was the “Battle of the Sexes,” King dominated the tennis court as a trailblazing athlete, breaking records while demanding the same pay and recognition as the male tennis players. She continues to work tirelessly to achieve gender equality in sports and remains an outspoken advocate for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.

Learn more about sports and our holdings in the exhibit All American: The Power of Sports, which is in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery in Washington, DC, through January 7, 2024.

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