I’ve seen this movie before, but last time it was ironically billed as The Battle of the Sexes, a winner take all match between a loathsome middle-aged sexist and an athlete in her prime: Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs playing tennis as if the fate of the world depended on the outcome. To some of us, it felt like it did. He had been needling her for months to accept his challenge, and she realized that if she did, she simply had to win.
This time, the only thing missing is the piglet.
Title IX, mandating equality in men’s and women’s sports in schools, had just become law the year before, and the prevailing societal attitudes varied from mild amusement to disgust. “Why should we spend anything on women’s sports? Men will always be better at it than women;” “Women’s sports are boring;” and my personal favorite, “Women don’t want to play sports.” Two of these ideas were manifestly untrue; this match was a test of the third. Could a woman actually beat an equally accomplished male opponent?
Now clearly, one match could not possibly confirm or deny this preposterous setup: If Billie Jean lost, everyone would just say, “See? We told you so.” But if she did manage to win, would they concede the point? Could a win move the needle on this tiresome argument even a little? Basically, we were talking about bragging rights.
In the fall of 1973 I was at all-women’s Mills College, and taking, yes, tennis lessons. I was a big fan of Billie Jean and seriously invested in this. Most of my dorm gathered nervously around the common room TV. We knew a victory would be mostly symbolic, but what a symbol. Shutting up this loud-mouthed creep and his minions, if only for a while, would be sweet.
The match had by this time taken a backseat to all the media hoopla surrounding it. Before it began, King presented Riggs with a piglet, a message not lost on anyone: No matter what happens here, you’re still a male chauvinist pig.
Billie Jean got behind in the first set, and we started to pace the floor. Bobby was hamming it up on the other end of the court, as if he just had to phone it in for a win. Then things settled down, and Billie Jean started to pull away. Even playing by the men’s best-of-five-sets rule, she beat him resoundingly in three straight sets! Let the backlash begin.
It was clear to any unbiased observer that King was the better tennis player that day. That didn’t stop the pundits from opining that if Riggs was her age he’d have beaten her, or that he threw the match to clean up on bets he’d made on himself or to pay off debts he owed to the mob. Because the earth didn’t just stop spinning on its axis, did it? A woman beat a man in a sporting event, what’s next?
This seemingly meaningless circus really did have a point and made it resoundingly. Billie Jean King was a professional, kick-ass athlete who was mesmerizing to watch. We didn’t need her to beat the men her age, we just loved to watch her play her game, and we expected her to be paid commensurately. She herself admitted that if she’d lost it could have set the cause back 50 years. That may have been a slight exaggeration, but I think the reverse is true—the win opened the door for others to follow her and get the respect and compensation they deserved. If it takes a circus to get the point across, so be it.
It’s now almost 50 years later. We’ve certainly made progress, so thank you Billie Jean for all the doors you opened for women. But here we are again, engaged in the same misogynistic circus, the only thing missing is the piglet. But this time our opponent is a bigger clown and the stakes are much higher. Let’s hope he really does throw the match this time.
Patricia is a co-founder of Retrospect, and generally can be found two standard deviations from the mean on most issues. Lover of chef's tasting menus, cute shoes, and the music of Brahms.