Billie Jean King: Taking on the Battle of the Sexes

by Margaret Gardiner October 16, 2017
Billie Jean King and Emma Stone

Emma Stone and Billie Jean King pose during a press conference for the film Battle of the Sexes during the 2017 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in  Flushing, Queens, New York City.

getty images

It’s hard to understand that such a seminal event as Billie Jean King, the number one Women’s Tennis player at the time, taking on a man and beating him at the height of the woman’s movement, has faded from popular culture to such an extent that many young women are unaware who this iconic figure is. Battle of the Sexes, a new movie about King's life at that time should put her and the event back into the public zeitgeist. It’s not just that she beat a guy who the former women’s #1 tennis player, Margaret Court, had crumbled against, or that she was determined to challenge many of the biases that unfortunately are still associated with women – ‘not as tough’, ‘lacks endurance’, ‘no woman ever has – so no woman should’. 

Billie Jean also took on the prestigious tennis association, for a battle women everywhere are still waging today: equal pay. She accomplished these achievements by doing something that women have been a little more reluctant to do until recently; she spoke up. King organized, boycotted and set up an alternative league, proving that women could be the main attraction, that audiences would pay to watch women play tennis, even if men weren’t in the same tournament. Her historic win forced organizers (male) to give women a seat at the table – even if it would take several more decades before Venus Williams forced pay parity in the grand slam events.

Talking from London while promoting the film that captures the pressure of that time, Billie Jean explored solutions to the gender problems of inequity that have not yet diminished. “Five things we can do differently?” She repeats the question as though she has so much to say on the topic she doesn’t want to limit her reply to five. “Women need to be good to themselves. Women are really tough on themselves because of the way they have been socialized. We’ve also been socialized not to ask for what we want – I’d like women to start thinking about that. We put ourselves down, and we say we are sorry. Guys don’t say that. It keeps us not feeling positive about ourselves or bodies or image. If you look at television and all the bodies (represented), I get so sick of these commercials: ‘Oh, I don’t feel sexy, and I didn’t feel good, but then I lost pounds and now my husband loves me again.’ Really? First, you have to love yourself and be good to yourself, no matter what. Women are socialized to be perfect. No one is. Take lots of photos of yourself when you are 20 so you remember when you didn’t have wrinkles and all that. Everybody’s beautiful. You just have to love yourself and be good to yourself. Everyone deserves the best out of life and what life has to offer.  Women have to start thinking in those terms."

As someone who had to start over, when Marilyn Barnett, King’s former lover, portrayed by Andrea Riseborough in the film, tried to blackmail her with their affair, Billie Jean has sage insight into the pain of forceful outing and what it takes to start over. “It was horribly painful to be outed. I always tell people don’t out anyone. When you are ready your body tells you. Don’t do it for them.” Marilyn threatened to out Billie Jean when the LGBTQ movement was not in the place it is today. Never one to be manipulated, Billie Jean chose to pre-empt her former lover and make the announcement herself instead. “She thought I wouldn’t. Her law firm was counting on it. They wanted to go straight to trial, so we did. The judge said, on the 22 counts they raised, it was the closest to extortion they’d seen and threw the case out. Marilyn just wanted money. It was a tough time. I was trying to figure out who I was. It was horrible and still so shame-based then. I’m so thrilled for people who can just come out and go for it. You don’t lose your endorsements or your job. That’s great. We still don’t have laws to protect us enough in the workplace. You can be fired, and they won’t say it, but they’ll do it and you’ll have no recourse.” “As to starting over?” She pauses giving the question consideration, but also maybe reflecting still on the challenge of that time. “You have to know your strengths. You will have more passion if you stay in your area that you are good at. You need relationships for everything. Keep learning, and if you are a problem solver you will always have a job.”

“Being your authentic self is absolutely vital. It is one of the most important things ever to be.” She asserts on the analogy between hiding that you are gay and a woman being unable to be her authentic self by having to fit a box of acceptability to be promoted? Both require conformity. “I have this ‘Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative’. That's one of the things we advocate because if you’re working to hide who you are, rather than just doing the job you are hired to do, it's exhausting. You have to be so measured all the time, and so careful about what you say, and how you say it, and how you do it.”

Billie Jean King with Bobby Riggs and Emma Stone with Steve Carell

(Left) Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs smile during a news conference in New York to publicize their upcoming match at the Houston Astrodome, July 11, 1973; (right) Emma Stone as Billy Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs in the film Battle of the Sexes.

AP Photo/Melinda Sue Gordon. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved 

 

While traveling the world promoting Battle of the Sexes, King is also involved in trying to get CEOs to address gender inequalities through hiring women on potential, including more women on boards, ensuring that enough women are on the list considered for promotions. Our conversation has flown by and it’s time for her to talk to the next journalist about her personal choices that are depicted in Battle of the Sexes, which addresses so many gender issues at large and are so prescient to the fight currently waging. Refusing to wrap up, Billie Jean King adds one more pertinent point. “Girls and women have to speak up and say what they need and want, or it will never happen.” The circle will just continue. “You have to state what you need – and it’s okay for women to be ambitious. Go for it.”