Fifty Years After Title IX, a Look at Billie Jean King’s Activism

Image of Billie Jean King, an older white woman, smiling and laughing. She is wearing a blue suit jacket and red glasses.
Billie Jean King speaking with supporters of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa, 2016. (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the law that opened all educational programs—including sports—to girls in the United States. Tennis legend Billie Jean King has done more than any other athlete to make the promise of Title IX a reality. She also won a record 20 Wimbledon titles, 13 U.S. titles, four French titles, and two in Australia between 1961 and 1979.

Most of the U.S. recognizes King for besting “male chauvinist pig” and tennis champ Bobby Riggs in what was billed the “battle of the sexes” in 1973 before an unprecedented TV audience of over 30 million. Off the court, King fought for equal prize money for women, and in 1971 became the first woman athlete to win over $100,000 in prize money. She became the first president of the Women’s Tennis Association, and co-founded the Women’s Sports Foundation. 

But King isn’t just a tennis legend. Though she retired from competitive play in 1990, she continues to be a tireless advocate for women’s rights and gay rights, and a role model for all of us. Life Magazine named King one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.” In 2009 President Obama awarded her the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, for her work advocating for equal rights. 

In this 50th anniversary year of Title IX, we revisit a 2012 interview with Equal Time’s Martha Burk and Billie Jean King on her activism, tennis career and what Title IX means to her. 

Martha Burk: You got your first tennis racket at age 11, and you were playing in public parks, public facilities. That same year, you told your mother that you were going to be number one in the world. Were you psychic, or did you just love the game that much?

Billie Jean King: Well, actually, that happened the first time I went out to the public parks, which was only the second time I hit a tennis ball. I did announce to my mother that I wanted to be the number one tennis player in the world. I probably said “I’m going to be,” but I think as you get older you realize it’s not that easy. There’s a lot of fear involved. I think sometimes it really drives you harder, because I definitely wanted to be number one. I figured if I’m going to be in the game, why not go for the gold? So, yes, I wanted to be number one. What really happened to me a year later (at 12 years old) has probably been more important for my life, and that is I was starting to think about our sport, about the world around me. I knew I wanted to change things.

I noticed everybody in tennis wore white shoes, white socks, white clothes, used white tennis balls, and everybody just about was white. I asked the question, “Where’s everybody else?” And I grew up in team sports as a child, and so, something just seemed off to me about our sport. I really thought, “Jeez, I’d really like to change tennis so it’s more inclusive.” Then I started to expand my thoughts like, “Well, what about everything else? Why don’t I [do it] if I can?” And I knew that tennis could be the way to have a platform. I probably couldn’t articulate it in those words, but I was visualizing it. I thought, “Well, if I could ever get good enough, maybe people would listen, maybe I could help tennis grow as a sport and be more inclusive. Maybe I could help change the world.” I knew tennis was the ticket for that, and so, I promised myself from that day that I would dedicate my life to equal rights and opportunities to boys and girls.

The men still have more opportunities throughout the world, but to have equal prize money in the major championships really sends a strong message. I keep telling people, it’s not about the money. It’s about the message.

Burk: Let’s talk about some of that activism because it has been—and still is—very strong in your life. You have made change and made waves all along the way, and one is equal pay for women in your sport. When you won the US Open in ’72, you got fifteen thousand dollars less than the male champion. 

So, the next year you were successful because you lobbied for and got equal prize money for the women and men in the US Open, but I’m wondering how you did it. Were the other female players with you back in ’73, or were they pretty much afraid to rock the boat?

King: Oh, we had a few women who were willing to rock the boat, like Ceci Martinez and Esmé Emmanuel. Esmé is from South Africa. Ceci’s from the San Francisco area. I was always chosen to be the leader by the players. I think followers choose leaders, but I find that people push you. I was pushed since I was in elementary school. “Oh, Billie, you do it, you can do it.” So, I went one on one with Billy Tauber, who was a tournament referee and who I really liked a lot, and I said, “Can we just have some quiet time? I’m the chosen one to come in and talk with you.” I was very quiet with him. I think it was ’71 or ’72 we had that discussion, because by 1973, the board of directors at the U.S.Tennis Association would have had to say yes to it, and they did. The U.S. Open was so far ahead of the other majors. We only really have equal prize money in some terms, not all. The men still have more opportunities throughout the world, but to have equal prize money in the major championships really sends a strong message. I keep telling people, it’s not about the money. It’s about the message.

Image of Billie Jean King, sitting on a bench in a locker room, holding a tennis racket.
Billie Jean King in New York, 1978. (Lynn Gilbert / Wikimedia Commons)

Burk: And that took until 2007 for all the majors to come on board. Is that right?

King: Correct. It’s amazing how much work it takes off the court day and night. There were nine of us that signed a one-dollar contract in 1970. That is the birth of women’s professional tennis because I wanted us to be with the guys. I wanted to have one association. I kept saying we can have one voice. We’re a global sport. We can help the world so much on and off the court. We should be together, and the guys have always rejected us. I’ve always thought that was a mistake for our sport because when we play with them in the majors and other tournaments, they’re much more valued because we’re together. So, just from a business point of view, I think it would be smart as well. But, they really don’t want us to have one organization.

Burk: So, you became the first president of the Women’s Tennis Association. Is that right?

King: I actually founded it. I got up at the Gloucester Hotel. A few of us had been trying to get the women together, and it was really difficult. So, I had Rosie Casals talk to two people I thought she could persuade. Ann Jones talked to somebody else. I got each player to tell me who they thought they could persuade, and each of them had only two people because if they had more than that they wouldn’t have the time to do it. So, I said each of us have to have at least two players we think we can persuade, and let’s go. So, we lobbied and lobbied and lobbied, and we had about 45 to 55 people at the Gloucester Hotel in 1973. I got up and said, “I’m not going to spend one more breath of my time on this. This is something that should have been done a long time ago.” I had Betty Stöve lock the doors in the back so nobody could leave. She’s from Holland.

She’s a Dutch player. She’s very big and ominous. So, I said, “Don’t let anybody out of here until we decide whether we’re going to have this or not,” and she said, “Why should we do it?” And I said, “We’ll have one voice. We’ll be stronger. We can leverage. We can do all kinds of things if we’re one voice, if we’re together.” So, everybody voted for it. My former husband, Larry King, had all the by-laws written before we voted. So, we were able to sign and then elect our officers right there before anyone left the room.

Burk: So, was there a lot of solidarity there?

King: Some of them said yes because they weren’t sure. Talking to some of them now, they go, “I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I figured why not? Let’s go for it.” That was very sweet of them. Now, we’re called the WTA Tour.

Burk: You wrote last year in The Huffington Post that the passage of Title IX did open important doors, and you knew it was going to be a long haul to keep those doors open. That was one reason you founded the Women’s Sports Foundation. Can you tell me about the Foundation?

King: We fought to get Title IX. A lot of athletes were actually involved in trying to get that done, truly trying to tell them why it’s so important from a sports point of view, but also from education. It’s really about education, and a lot of people don’t really understand it because sports is visible. I keep saying, “No, it’s an educational passage.”

The reason I wanted to beat Bobby [Riggs]—which was ’73, one year after Title IX was passed on June 23, 1972—was to start to change the hearts and minds of people to match the legislation of Title IX. As we know, to change hearts and minds to match legislation isn’t that easy sometimes. So, I thought it was very important that I had to beat him for a lot of reasons, but it wasn’t about a tennis match. It was about social change, and I knew that. It was very, very clear that it was going to get everybody emotionally crazy, and it did.

It wasn’t about a tennis match. It was about social change, and I knew that.

Burk: There was so much hype. Bobby Riggs was 55 years old. He said the women’s tennis game was inferior. He could beat any woman, and he challenged women to play him, and you were one of them. This was in the Houston Astrodome before 30,000 people, an audience of 30 million on television. We were pulling for you so hard because it was the middle of the women’s movement. We had to prove ourselves in so many ways, and we kept saying, “Oh my God, what if she loses? She can’t lose. Of course, you didn’t. You trounced him. God, were we relieved. We were happy.” 

King: So was I. I still wake up sometimes in a sweat thinking I haven’t played him, and I go, “Oh, thank you, God. I did win. Thank you. Thank you.” Every time I go out the door, every single day, someone brings that up to me. You cannot believe how many people come up to me, of all ages. What’s very interesting is that men will come up to me with tears in their eyes many times, and say they were very young when they saw that match, and now they have a daughter, and they raise their daughter very differently because of that experience.

Image of Billie Jean King standing next to Bobby Riggs on a tennis court.
Billy Jean King & Bobby Riggs in 1973. (Wikimedia Commons)

Burk: It was an amazing social change event. You’re absolutely right. I don’t think it will ever be forgotten really. It’s going to be in annals.

King: It’ll probably fade as each generation goes on, but hopefully people will use that experience to keep changing things and keep going forward. The reason I started the Women’s Sports Foundation was I wanted us to make sure that Title IX stayed strong because it was a new law. A lot of people were not happy about it. Before 1972, the reason we didn’t have very many women doctors and lawyers [was that] they kept the ratio so bad. I remember as a younger woman saying, “Why don’t we have more lawyers and doctors as women and other professions as well?” No CEOs, no nothing. I didn’t understand that at the time, and it’s just amazing to think that our leading educational institutions in this country had a five percent quota. That’s shocking.

Burk: I want to move to another very great area of your activism because you have, again, done more than almost any athlete to open doors for gay people. You didn’t have the luxury of coming out on your own schedule, and when you were outed, you lost over two million dollars in long-term contracts within 24 hours. How did you fight back from that?

King: Oh, it’s been a long struggle. I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin until probably the age of 51, and I’m 68 now. So, it’s been probably my longest and most difficult struggle because I grew up in a homophobic family. My family’s very loving, but they never really had to deal with it. I was always afraid. I’ve had a lot of psychotherapy, which has been really helpful. One thing that the therapist said [was], “Billie, do you realize you’ve given all your power to your parents?” In that moment, I thought, “Well, at 51 I think it’s time that I take my power back.” So, I thank her every day. She empowered me in that moment. Obviously, I was ready to hear her. 

I just started to be free and started to not measure my words with my mom and dad and be able to talk about my partner Ilana and say, “Oh, we’re going here. We’re going there, you know, or we love each other,” or whatever. I just talked to her like I used to talk about Larry when I was married to a male, and it’s really, it’s amazing how the truth does set you free. There are consequences to everything though, but I’ve learned that with tennis. Every ball that comes to me, I have to make a decision, and I have to live with the consequences, and I keep trying to always correct mistakes. I don’t really talk about failures. When I lose a point, I gain feedback from it. It’s the same way with our experiences in life. When people look at it as feedback and not failure, it starts to give a sense of freedom of just using it and getting better from it.

Burk: The work you have done obviously paved the way for the acceptance we’re seeing now of gay and lesbians individuals. Just look at what happened to you. You lost two million dollars. Now, Ellen DeGeneres is on television touting JCPenney, and they’re welcoming her. They want her to sell their products.

King: I love it. I love seeing that every day. I love it when people win and can be the best they can be and be free. What I do now with my life is World TeamTennis, and if you watch a World TeamTennis match, you see my philosophy on life. We have equal amounts of men and women, equal contribution by both genders on a level playing field. If a young boy comes out to watch, he sees men and women cooperating. He sees men and women in supportive and leadership roles, which change during the match all the time. It’s amazing when you put men and women on the same team and towards the same objective. It’s just like having men’s teams or women’s teams trying to have an objective, but you put them together and it’s a great socialization vision for children.

Burk: There’s long been a saying in the women’s movement, “You can’t be a thing until you can imagine it.”

King: Right. You have to see it to be it. I tell kids that all the time, if you see men and women cooperating, you think that’s normal. Let’s just help each other, and sometimes, the male will be in leadership or the woman will be in a leadership role, and everyone just keeps moving. It’s just a non-issue, and we’ve got to make all these different things, whether you’re gay or whatever, it should be just non-issue.

Burk: I think we’re moving that way, but there’s always a backlash against Title IX. There are always going to be backlashes, and we just have to keep pushing. Speaking of that, I want to talk about your work with the United States Tennis Association because you were on Capitol Hill talking about that work a month or so ago. What are you doing with them to expand opportunities?

King: Well, they really signed me to talk about teams because that’s really my legacy—teamwork. Within tennis, we have, besides World TeamTennis, a professional league with men and women on it. We have recreational leagues, league play from 8 to 88 years of age and beyond. We have junior team tennis. That’s my legacy, and they know it. So, they think that’s a good fit. I think the Women’s Sports Foundation was actually very much ahead of its time. We had Donna de Varona as our first president.

Burk: Where would you like to see sports—particularly women’s sports—10 years from now?

King: Until we truly have professional opportunities for girls to dream, tennis, women’s tennis is the number one sport globally, and we’re very fortunate because of that one-dollar contract we signed in 1970, it was the beginning of that, and the reason that came together is we had a sponsor. We had Gladys Heldman, the promoter, and you had nine women who were willing to cross the line in the sand, and the stars were in alignment. 

We need women to support women’s sports, especially Title IX babies. Women who went to college on a sports scholarship should be absolutely trying to figure out how to always help with season tickets. It’s been harder on us because we never had the income. We’re still at 77 cents on the dollar, which is not good. A lot of times as a single mother raising her children, obviously she’s having to raise them with less money. It’s a challenge. So, we need to get women’s pay to be equal. But we need women to understand that “You got to see it to be it,” like you said, Martha. Women athletes are very inspirational.

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Martha Burk is money editor at Ms.