Billie Jean King - Notable Women in History Series

Photo Courtesy: PBS

Billie Jean King can rightfully be described as a visionary and innovator, as well as an indisputable tennis champion. Though she is best-known for her prowess on the tennis court, she also actively campaigns on behalf of the LGBT community.

Billie Jean King was born November 22. 1943 in Long Beach, California. Raised in a devout Methodist family, she originally expressed the desire to become a preacher. Time would prove, however, that life had other plans for her. King was athletically inclined from an early age; it clearly ran in the family. Her father played against Jackie Robinson in college and once turned down an invitation to try out for the NBA due to family commitments. Likewise, her younger brother Randy went on to be a Major League Baseball pitcher for 13 years.

King was first introduced to tennis by a school friend, at the local country club. At the time, tennis was still perceived to be a country club sport, thus not readily available to working class families like King’s. But when she discovered free tennis lessons were available at nearby public courts, she fell in love with the sport, and was soon buying her first racket with money saved working odd jobs for her parents and neighbors.

King won her first championship at the tender age of 14 and went on to be coached by legendary tennis champion, Alice Marble, at the age of 15. She attended Los Angeles State College for 3 years where she met and married Larry King. At college she continued to grow her tennis career, but after being denied a tennis scholarship due to her sex, she began to realize the great inequalities between men and women in sport and society.  

King later used her tennis success to her advantage in narrowing the inequalities women were facing. Starting with her first success where she won the Wimbledon doubles championship alongside her partner Karen Hantze, on none other than her first attempt. She combined this early success with several other boast-worthy wins, creating herself a tennis icon, and using that platform to campaign for equality on the national stage.

A notable success to her credit, Billie Jean, after noticing the significant disparity in prize money between genders, pushed relentlessly for equality. Her constant lobbying paid off when in 1973, the US Open awarded equal prize money to men and women.  It took another 34 years until all four major tournaments were paying everyone equally.

Her role in feminism peaked in 1973 when she faced ex-tennis star Bobby Riggs in a match dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes”. More than just a tennis match, it was a cultural phenomenon. Even more so, when she beat the self-proclaimed male chauvinist in a five set match, proving to men and women alike that they can be and are equals.

In 1987, King was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, cementing her status of one of the tennis greats. She earned further recognition when the United States Tennis Association renamed the National Tennis Center and home of the US Open, The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Additionally, in 2009, King was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in American society.

Photo Courtesy:

Even in her later years, King has remained involved in tennis, as well as an active promoter for LGBT rights. There is no question that she is more than a tennis pro, she’s an example to everyone that if you fight hard enough for what you believe in, you can achieve your dreams.