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Once upon a time, there was a bespectacled girl who loved tennis. She was resourceful and figured out a way to get tennis lessons for free since her family didn’t have a lot of money. When she became a national champion, she began to fight for equal rights within the tennis circuit: equal pay for men AND women. This led to a revolution in the sport, paving the way for future female superstars like Venus and Serena Williams.
Jessica Valenti is a columnist for the Guardian US and the author of multiple books on feminism, politics, and culture. Her most recent book, Sex Object: A Memoir, was a New York Times bestseller. Her award-winning blog, Feministing.com, has been praised by Columbia Journalism Review as “head and shoulders above almost any writing on women’s issues in mainstream media.”
Once upon a time, there was girl who needed eight dollars.
Her name was Billie Jean.
She was 10 years old when one of her friends told her about a fantastic sport called “tennis.” “You get to run, jump… and hit a ball,” her friend had said. Billie Jean’s bright blue eyes lit up– those were her three favorite things.
From then on, she wanted to spend all her time on the tennis court. There were only two problems.
One, her parents couldn’t afford to join a country club– which is where most people played tennis those days.
And two, she needed money to buy a racquet.
Billie Jean found out that a local tennis coach gave free lessons in public parks around her city and she figured: “if I follow him to all five parks…I could get five free tennis lessons a week!”
As for the racquet…Billie Jean went door to door offering to do odd jobs for her neighbors so she could earn the money to buy one.
They were so taken with her perky determination that they came up with all sorts of chores for her to do. She pulled weeds in gardens, raked leaves, took out endless bags of trash….and little by little, Billie Jean began to fill a glass jar with coins.
Once she had eight whole dollars, she bought herself a tennis racquet. It was made of wood and had purple strings– her favorite color.
She walked onto the tennis court for her first tennis lesson, holding the racquet bought with money that she had earned– and Billie Jean felt like she could do anything!
After that, there was no stopping her.
I’m JESSICA VALENTI. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. A fairy tale podcast about the extraordinary women who inspire us. This week: Billie Jean King.
<END THEME MUSIC>
STYLE OF PLAY
<BEAT/SOUND DESIGN/TENNIS MATCH AUDIO>
When Billie Jean was 16 years old, she started playing tennis professionally.
And she was good.
<MORE MATCH AUDIO>
She’d fly across the court, moving fast and hitting the ball hard.
Billie Jean would charge the net after every serve… staring down her opponent, challenging her to hit it past her!
<QUICK SOUND DESIGN OF TENNIS SHOTS>
She liked the quick back and forth of being at the net.
Billie Jean wanted to hit a winner every time!
She was a fierce competitor and she was hard on herself. When it wasn’t going well, she’d get mad and yell, “Oh Billie, think!”
After a failed shot– she’d shout, “Nuts!”
People weren’t used to hearing a girl talk like that.
Little did they know, she’d have a lot more to say…
EQUALITY OFF AND ON THE COURT
When Billie Jean was 17 years old, she won the women’s doubles championship at Wimbledon.
The matches were played on grass courts in England. It was the oldest and most formal tennis competition around – even members of the royal family attended!
That was the first of 20 Wimbledon trophies Billie Jean would win in her life.
For the little girl who had worked so hard to get herself on the tennis court in the first place, this was a dream come true.
<SHIFT IN MUSIC>
As she started winning more and more tournaments though, Billie Jean noticed that there was something that bothered her…
The prize money for women was always less than the men’s.
Not just at Wimbledon.
Tennis executives and male players argued that this was fair because women only played 2 out of 3 sets, while men played 3 out of 5.
They said the men worked harder and played longer. Shouldn’t they get more money? Billie Jean said it didn’t matter how long the match lasted.
People paid the same ticket price to see the women as they did the men! So long as the tournament organizers were advertising women players to sell tickets, they should pay them equal to the men.
But the people in power shrugged off Billie Jean’s criticism. They told her things were exactly as they should be.
Billie Jean decided there was just one way to make them listen: by becoming the best tennis player in the world.
<SEGUE INTO THE FAMOUS WIMBLEDON MUSIC THEME>
In 1968, Billie Jean won her first women’s singles title at Wimbledon. The great Australian tennis champ Rod Laver won the men’s.
Billie Jean was awarded 750 Pounds. Rod Laver got 2,000 Pounds.
At the end of the tournament there was an elegant dinner held in their honor. And, as was tradition, the winners of the women’s and men’s titles had the first dance together.
Billie Jean glided around the dance floor in her full length skirt, smiling her toothy smile for the cameras and laughing with Rod as they danced.
She seemed light-hearted and happy, but all the while, she was making a plan. <DRIVING MUSIC CUE>
Billie Jean was officially the number one women’s tennis player in the world. Now, it was time to make some demands.
<GROOVY 60S TYPE MUSIC>
THE ORIGINAL 9
A famous tennis executive called Jack Kramer invited Billie Jean to play a tournament in Los Angeles. He was a bigwig in the business. And, in his tournament, he planned to pay the women 8 times less than the men.
Billie Jean told Jack Kramer that she would not play unless he made the prize money equal for female and male players.
She had some leverage now. She had fans, she had press attention. Things that he needed to sell tickets to his event.
But Jack didn’t budge.
So Billie Jean walked out.
And she didn’t do it alone. She convinced 8 other players to follow her.
Together, they formed the first women’s only tennis circuit. They became known as the “Original 9.”
<DRIVING MUSIC CUE>
With the help of a woman named Gladys Heldman– the founder of World Tennis magazine– they organized a tournament for the same exact week as Kramer’s.
Jack Kramer and other tennis executives were furious. They stripped the players of their rankings and they threatened to ban them from all the biggest tournaments. And they kicked them out of the US Tennis Association.
The Original 9’s careers were at stake.
Billie Jean knew they were risking a lot, but she was sick and tired of being treated this way.
The only way to shake things up was to leave.
And the eight women who joined her were all in.
The Original 9 announced their new tour would be sponsored by Virginia Slims. And, at the press conference, the players posed for a photo– each one proudly holding up a dollar bill.
Billie Jean and her fellow players demanded equal pay. And they were willing to take a pay cut – for now – to get it.
<CHEERS/TENNIS MATCH SOUNDS>
All the players teamed up to promote the tour, drum up interest and sell tickets. It was exhausting, exciting and a far cry from the way established tournaments were run.
But they made it work.
People bought tickets and the Original 9 booked events around the country.
The next year, 40 more women players joined the Virginia Slims tour and by 1973, the women of that tour merged with the women still in the USTA to form the new Women’s Tennis Association. They named Billie Jean as their first president.
BOYCOTT OF 1973
That same year, Billie Jean threatened another boycott. This time for the biggest tournament in the country. The US Open.
Billie Jean was the defending champion. She’d won in ‘71 and ‘72. Each time she had been awarded less money than the male winners. And she was determined not to let that happen again.
The tennis executives knew what Billie Jean wanted — she talked about it all the time in the press. But they never expected she’d pull out of the biggest tournament ever! They didn’t think she had the guts.
But they underestimated her.
Billie Jean announced that unless the US Open made the prize money for women equal she wouldn’t play.
The US Open’s reigning champ was calling out the tournament for discrimination? This got people’s attention.
<NEWSREEL OF MARCHES>
You see, Billie Jean knew this issue went way beyond the tennis court. Women around the world were fighting for equality.
There were massive marches in the streets with signs calling for the equal treatment of women.
As a leading woman athlete in the country, Billie Jean felt the responsibility to take a stand, to make her voice heard.
BATTLE OF THE SEXES
And, despite all odds, Billie Jean’s boycott worked. In September of 1973, the US Open became the first pro sport to pay equal prize money to men and women.
Some people thought women were pushing it too far. To them, equal pay was an absurd idea.
One of those people was Bobby Riggs.
Bobby was a flamboyant 55 year old. He was a former Grand Slam winner who could still play, but he was well past his prime. And he was constantly saying outlandish things to get attention from the press, like “Women belong in the kitchen. Not on the tennis court!” He ridiculed the women’s rights movement, and to make a point, he – a retired player – challenged one of the best female players of the year, Margaret Court.
Bobby beat her two sets to none.
It was mortifying.
But Bobby still wasn’t satisfied. So he challenged Billie Jean.
She had watched the Riggs match against Margaret and was hurt. Thanks to that stupid match, chauvinists everywhere had new fuel for their argument that women were “inferior to men”.
Bobby needed to be beaten. So she agreed to play.
<MUSIC/SOUND DESIGN/FLARES OF HORNS>
The media dubbed the match: ‘The Battle of the Sexes’.
On September 20, 1973, more than 30,000 people filled the Houston Astrodome. Over 90 million people watched on TV across 36 countries.
It was the biggest tennis match of all time.
<CHEERING/MARCHING BAND/CROWD SOUNDS>
And it was a spectacle. A marching band played in the stadium. Fans carried signs and shouted.
Billie Jean was carried into the Astrodome on a throne adorned with pink feathers held by shirtless men.
Bobby entered on a rickshaw surrounded by cheerleaders in short skirts.
He prided himself on being a male chauvinist pig, so when they met on the tennis court to shake hands, Billie Jean gave Bobby a baby pig with a bow around its neck.
The crowd loved it!
It was clear this was going to be much more than running, jumping and hitting a ball.
Billie Jean smiled, waved at the crowd and played along with the circus atmosphere that Bobby had created. He was sure he would beat Billie Jean without breaking a sweat. So when the match started, he kept his jacket on.
But this didn’t last long. When he lost the first set, he took off his jacket, frowned and wiped his forehead.
Billie Jean meant business and pretty soon, he realized that he didn’t stand a chance… <MATCH AUDIO>
She beat him three sets to zero.
<CHEERS SEGUE TO MUSIC CRESCENDO>
With the winning shot, Billie Jean threw her racquet high up in the air, clapped her hands and flashed her big toothy smile to the crowd. The rhinestones that were sewn into her tennis dress sparkled ever so slightly.
Billie Jean had done it. She had defeated the bully who had dared to put women into a box.
She had convinced the US Open to award women equal pay for equal work.
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It would still take many more years for the other tournaments to get on board.
But today, thanks to Billie Jean, tennis is one of the few sports sport where women have achieved equal pay.