Before I knew who Billie Jean King was, I knew she was a badass. I knew from the pictures of her in magazines—fresh-faced and sporty, wearing her trademark giant glasses—that she was different from other women, with their huge hair and maroon streaks of blush. I knew that she was either good or great, because she was on the news, and my mom disappeared into the den for long afternoons to watch Billie Jean at Wimbledon.
I didn’t learn until later that Billie Jean King (née Moffitt) was a feminist pioneer, a giant not just in the world of tennis, but in life. Her talent on the court helped make it acceptable and cool for girls to be jocks. She was aggressive and unapologetic, and so her critics called her “masculine,” but she didn’t seem to care. “I think we should get rid of the words feminine and masculine,” she said in a 1973 interview on public television, “because too often it makes children try to act a certain way instead of feeling and doing what is really right for them. It just kills me to see some girls be passive when, in reality, they are not. And also, what happens to the boy who isn’t a super jock?”
Billie Jean was a legend because she used her success and power—even when she had very little—to pave the way for women to be paid and treated fairly in professional sports. In the pantheon of sports history, she is a revolutionary figure, on par with Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. Her absolute dominance as a player demanded that she be taken seriously.
When she was 11 years old, Billie Jean played touch football and softball with her brother, but her parents encouraged her interest in tennis, because it was deemed a gentle, ladylike sport. She says that the first time she lobbed a ball, she knew that tennis was her destiny. Still, she had very little support, and she paid for her first racket herself. By the time she was 14, she was bristling at the exclusivity of the sport, which was geared toward wealthy white people in country clubs; she wanted tennis to be accessible to all kinds of people.
She was a natural and aggressive player, and she spent the early ’60s climbing the ranks of competitive tennis. She started playing in national competitions in 1959, and two years later, when she was 17, she went to Wimbledon, where she won the first of 20 titles, this time in women’s doubles. For the next few years, she eked out a meager living, supporting herself while training and going to college by working as a “playground instructor” at a children’s school. There was almost no money in women’s tennis, and wealthy benefactors would pool funds to pay her under the table in order to send her to tournaments. Tennis was an amateur sport, and players were expected to pursue it for the love of the game, which made it difficult for anyone other than the very rich to play competitively. It was doubly hard for women, who received significantly less prize money than their male counterparts. Billie Jean started to speak out about how totally bullshit that was, using every press conference and interview as a platform to advocate for herself and the other players to be paid as professionals.
By the end of the decade, her marriage to a young lawyer named Larry King (not the dude from CNN) was on the rocks. As her career was blowing up, he moved to Hawaii to open a law practice. Billy Jean wasn’t comfortable being a doting housewife, and traveling back and forth between Hawaii and the contiguous U.S., where the tournaments were, was exhausting. Larry wasn’t particularly interested in waiting in hotel rooms while she competed, either, but he eventually returned to the mainland to become her manager. Decades later, she would admit that it was around this time that she started to realize that she was gay.
In 1970, two years after tennis became a professional sport, the prize money for women was still a fraction of what it was for men—often 10 or 12 times less. Tired of the disparity, King and eight other women risked their careers by boycotting tournaments and forming the Virginia Slims Circuit, which eventually morphed into the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). In 1971, King became the first female athlete to earn $100,000 in a year. (She later said: “One hundred grand is the way to the American consciousness.”)
In 1972, at the age of 29, she was at the height of her game, having won the top titles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the French Open. She was Sports Illustrated’s first Sportswoman of the Year. Around the same time, the Washington Post reported that King had had an abortion the previous year, which was still illegal at the time. It was a scandal, but Billy Jean was a vocal advocate for women’s right to choose, and she decided not to deny it. That same year, she campaigned for Title IX, the landmark legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in education, and her testimony before Congress helped pass it into law in 1972.
In 1973, Billie Jean played the tournament that made her a worldwide phenomenon. Back in the ’40s, Bobby Riggs had been the number-one male tennis player in the world. He still played in one-off events for money and was still quite good. He was a hostile old coot and he decided to challenge King to a winner-take-all match (the prize was $100,000). Basically, he was saying that even a 55-year-old man could beat the world’s best female player. Their match was dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes,” and Riggs and King played up the stereotypes. She was brought out to the court Cleopatra-style by hunky shirtless dudes to the tune of “I Am Woman.” Riggs was accompanied by a bunch of babes in hotpants. Then 90 million people watched Billie Jean King hand ol’ Bobby Riggs his ass.
The next year, Elton John wrote “Philadelphia Freedom” for Billy Jean’s fledgling tennis team of the same name, because they were tight like that. In 1974, she started womenSports, a monthly magazine devoted to female athletes, which existed in various forms until it was folded into Self in 2000.
In a 1975 Sports Illustrated story, Billy Jean King’s cultural importance was likened to that of the Beatles, but special mention was made of her cellulite, her flat chest, and her face. Despite being “stubby,” they reported, she’d become a sex symbol. Total dick move, but the fact that King became an icon despite not adhering to traditional norms of femininity was extraordinary in the early ’70s, at the dawn of the women’s-lib movement. To be famous and butch and sexy at the same time was almost unheard of in mainstream America, and she wasn’t seeking permission to be who she was.
Billie Jean would say later say that during this time she was struggling with her own homophobic upbringing. She was outed in a 1981 palimony suit brought by her former girlfriend/personal assistant, who claimed that Billie Jean had promised her money and a beach house during their nearly 10-year affair. Billie Jean was still married at the time. Despite pressure from her husband and her publicist to stay in the closet, she confirmed the affair at a press conference, because, she said later, “the truth will set you free eventually.” Within 24 hours, she lost all of her endorsement deals and almost went bankrupt. She had been on the brink of retirement, but had to continue to play for several more years to get by. (She would go on to get the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 for her LGBTQ activism.)
Today, she lives in New York and Chicago with her partner of 20-plus years (and is still tight with Elton John). Since retiring from competition in 1983, she’s dedicated her life to queer activism. She raises money for AIDS awareness and treatment. She’s traveled to Muslim countries to talk about the importance of girls playing sports.
It’s crazy to imagine how different Billy Jean King’s life and career might have been if she were coming up now, post–Serena and Venus. If she had not faced sexism and homophobia at every turn. Many of the profiles of her from the ’60s and ’70s paint her as bitchy and aggressive—but how could she not be pissed off at least some of the time, given the painful circumstances in which she rose to fame? Her example is her legacy: she never gave up, despite being misunderstood. And she never stopped fighting for everyone to have the opportunity to be who they are—even when she was still finding that out for herself. ♦