“Without Billie Jean King I don’t know if any of us female athletes would be here.” ~ Serena Williams
Today is International Women’s Day, and in the United States March is Women’s History Month. Each year during this month, the National Women’s History Project (NWHP) honors women in history with a theme, and this year it’s “Nevertheless she persisted.”
The theme is taken from an extraordinary moment that occurred on the floor of the United States Senate on February 8, 2017. Senator Elizabeth Warren was speaking in opposition to the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, and was quoting from past statements about Senator Sessions by the late Senator Ted Kennedy and the late widow of Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King. In light of those statements, a rarely used Senate rule was invoked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who interrupted Senator Warren. Subsequently, Senator Warren was ordered to step down, effectively silencing her from making further comments. (Note: One might argue that the rule did not apply to a Cabinet nomination hearing; moreover, the act of interrupting a Senator appears to be against the same rule.)
Following the silencing of Senator Warren, Senator McConnell said, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
In keeping with the theme of women persisting, today I honor Billie Jean King, who persisted in her efforts to bring equality to women’s tennis, and by extension to all women’s sports. And apropos my honoring Billie Jean, one of the NWHP’s 2018 official honorees happens to be Margaret Dunkle, who “played a key role in implementing Title IX, the law that transformed education for women and girls, from athletic fields to graduate schools. Her groundbreaking 1974 report documenting discrimination against female athletes became the blueprint for the Title IX regulations on athletics.”
Women and men of a certain age remember Billie Jean’s role in championing women’s recognition and equal treatment in the sport of tennis. The ways in which she persisted to reach this goal throughout the 1960s and ’70s included campaigning for and testifying before Congress on behalf of Title IX; defying the male-oriented United States Tennis Association (then known as the United States Lawn Tennis Association); signing with eight other women a contract to play in the inaugural Virginia Slims Tennis Series in 1970; founding the Women’s Tennis Association in 1972; and beating Bobby Riggs in the epic “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973. (The “Battle” is dramatized in the movie, Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell.)
As Billie Jean King has said, “No one changes the world who isn’t obsessed.” Thankfully, she has been obsessed with her sport, and that obsession has paved the way for other female tennis stars ranging from Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova to Venus Williams and Serena Williams, as well as many others. It is likely, as Serena Williams stated, because of Billie Jean that today’s female tennis stars have made it to the top of the sport and are enjoying equal pay along with women in other fields of sports. Billie Jean tells her own story in the PBS American Masters series.
Billie Jean King loved playing tennis since she was a little girl. Apparently the incident that sparked her passion to bring about change to the sport occurred when she was 11 years old and wasn’t allowed in a photo because she wasn’t wearing a white tennis skirt. Since then, Billie Jean King has demonstrated that she is a force with which to be reckoned both on and off the court, in any color. In 2006, the USTA honored her by renaming its National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, New York, the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Despite resistance and intimidation that Billie Jean King faced from some powerful quarters, nevertheless she persisted. And so should we all.
Until next time,