Encyclopedia Womannica

Explorers & Contenders: Billie Jean King

Episode Summary

Billie Jean King (1943-present) is a living legend. Her whirlwind tennis career captivated a nation, and her advocacy changed society for the better. She won 39 major tennis titles, fought and made progress for pay equity in her sport, and earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

All April we’re going to be talking about Explorers and Contenders, women who veered outside of prescribed gender norms to accomplish feats in fields strongly associated with men. These women literally discovered new paths and/or participated in incredible athletic endeavors. I personally find this group inspiring, especially at this moment when many of us are stuck indoors.  

Today’s contender is a living legend. Her whirlwind tennis career captivated a nation, and her advocacy changed society for the better. She won 39 major tennis titles, fought and made progress for pay equity in her sport, and earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Let’s talk about  the incredible Billie Jean King.

Billie Jean Moffitt was born on November 22, 1943, in Long Beach, California. Athletics prowess ran in her family. Her father was a firefighter, but was once offered a tryout for an NBA team. Her mother was a talented swimmer, and her younger brother became a Major League Baseball pitcher.

Billie Jean’s foray into sports started with softball at the age of 10, but she soon transitioned to tennis, saving up money to buy her first racket. In 1958, at age 14, she won a regional championship. After that, she then started to receive coaching from Alice Marble, a famous player from the 1930’s.

In 1961, Billie Jean became part of the youngest duo to win the Wimbledon women’s doubles title. At that time, Billie Jean was attending California State University while teaching tennis lessons to make ends meet. She realized she’d need to work harder on her game  if she wanted to be great, so she started deeply focusing on her training regimen. Soon, the world would see her work pay off.

In 1966, Billie Jean won her first Wimbledon Singles Championship. That was just the beginning. Between 1966 and 1972, Billie Jean won 9 Grand Slam singles titles. In 1971, she became the first woman to earn $100,000 in prize money in a year on the circuit. She was a star and had considerable sway in the sport. She used her influence to help promote gender equality. 

Billie Jean had long been advocating equal prize money for men and women in tennis. She was one of nine women who had even started their own circuit. After winning the U.S. Open in 1972, Billie Jean said she would boycott the following year if the women’s prize money was not equal to the men’s. In 1973 the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to give equal compensation to the men’s and women’s champions.

By 1973, Billie Jean had been ranked the number 1 women’s tennis player in the world 5 of the previous 7 years 

Another famous tennis player, Bobby Riggs, had long been boasting that women were inferior athletes. In the 1940’s, Riggs had been ranked number one in the world three times. He argued that he could still beat any of the top women tennis players, even at the age of 55. In May of 1973, he easily defeated Margaret Court. 

In September of that same year, Billie Jean stepped up to Bobby Riggs’ challenge in the legendary “Battle of the Sexes” match, with a $100,000 prize at stake. That’s over half a million dollars in today’s money! An estimated 90 million viewers tuned in to see the showdown.

After a theatrical introduction where the players exchanged tongue-in-cheek gifts, the match started. Initially, Billie Jeanstruggled against Riggs and fell behind at the start of the first set -- but she pulled ahead and dominated Riggs for the rest of the match.

Billie Jean later said she pulled ahead when she realized she just had to win -- for women everywhere.

That same year, Billie Jean won the singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles at Wimbledon. She continued to play tennis for another decade. In total she won 12 singles Grand Slams, 16 doubles Grand Slams, and 11 mixed doubles Grand Slams. 

Billie Jean also became a champion for the LGBTQ community, though not without personal struggle. In 1981, a lawsuit thrust a private affair with her former personal assistant into the public eye, outing her. Billie Jean was the first prominent female athlete to come out as homosexual, and as a result, she lost her endorsements. Billie Jean continues to be an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights..

In 1987, she divorced her husband and started a long-term relationship with Ilana Kloss, another former player. 

Throughout her career, Billie Jean King won a massive list of awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Radcliffe Medal, the Elizabeth Blackwell Award, induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and more. She is cited as influential in the creation of Title IX, was Time Magazine’s Woman of the Year, and was the first woman to be Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year. She has inspired generations of women to rethink what’s possible.

All month, we’re talking about Explorers and Contenders. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter, Womannica Weekly. 

You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!