Today in Feminist History: Good Luck Billie Jean King! (July 11, 1973)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

July 11, 1973: Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs met today, but not on a tennis court.

Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs arm-wrestling at their joint press conference earlier today.

They held a joint press conference to announce that they’ll play a $100,000 winner-take-all match this fall. Though the exact details have not been set, it is certain to be a major event, because it’s being staged by Jerry Perenchio, president of Tandem Productions. Two years ago he promoted the Muhammad Ali / Joe Frazier battle for the heavyweight boxing crown, which turned out to be the greatest revenue-producing event in the history of sports. Tandem Productions was founded by Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear, and produces three of the four highest-rated shows on TV: “All in the Family” was rated #1, “Sanford & Son” #2, and “Maude” #4 for the most recent TV season. 

Riggs has spent the past several months making anti-feminist and male supremacist remarks, bragging that men are so superior to women in athletic ability that even he – a 55-year-old man – could defeat the best of the women’s champions. As he put it in one of the milder examples of his attitude toward women tennis players:

“They’re fun to watch. They hit the ball back and forth, have a lot of nice volleys. You can see some pretty legs. But compare the caliber of tennis to men and it’s night and day. I’m out to prove that a guy 55 years old, with one foot in the grave, can play the best woman in the world and maybe beat her. It’ll be a big boost for men’s superiority.”

Riggs’ initial challenge was issued earlier this year, and though the 29-year-old King ignored him, 30-year-old Margaret Court accepted. On May 13th – Mother’s Day – a clearly flustered Court went down to a humiliating 6-2, 6-1 defeat in a $10,000 challenge match at the San Vicente Country Club in Ramona (near San Diego), California, putting in one of her worst performances ever.

The Court debacle was viewed in the media as a major defeat for women’s sports as well as feminism, so obviously things could not end there. Three days ago, after winning her fifth Wimbledon singles title, ninth women’s doubles crown and third mixed doubles victory, King said: “That’s three more Wimbledon titles … and now for Bobby Riggs.”

Though Riggs, who won the singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles at Wimbledon in 1939, is now primarily known as a hustler, who will say or do anything for publicity or money, the issues of equal rights for women and of equal recognition and prizes for women athletes are serious matters. The King / Riggs match, for better or worse, will have a major impact on the public’s views for may years to come, so good luck, Billie Jean!


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.