| By J. Robert Parks |
The place of women in society—and especially women in sports—has changed so much in the last 50 years that most students today couldn’t imagine what passed for normal in 1973. Today, women athletes have fought for the right to be paid the same as male athletes; many female athletes are recognized around the world; and in the United States at least, girls and young women have equal opportunities to participate in sports in most school systems. In 1973, however, Title IX was barely a year old, and the number of boys playing sports outnumbered girls by 10 to 1. Even more, gender discrimination was taken for granted, as many Americans were still accustomed to women predominantly fulfilling the roles of unpaid and underpaid homemakers and caretakers in society.
It was in this context that one of the biggest and strangest sporting events of the 1970s occurred. Fifty years ago, on September 20, 1973, Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King faced off in a live, televised tennis match that was broadcast in 36 countries. Billed as the “Battle of the Sexes,” it was seen as compelling evidence to determine whether women were the equal of men. Teachers and librarians looking to educate students about how gender roles and gender discrimination have changed over the last 50 years will find a wealth of resources in Gale In Context: U.S. History.
Bobby Riggs had been a strong tennis player in his career and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1967, but by 1973 he was 55 years old. Still, he was a hustler as well as a misogynist. He knew he could keep his name in the public eye by challenging women to play him, and he went on record as saying no woman could beat him—even at his age.
Billie Jean King was only 29 years old and one of the best female tennis players at the time. She had won Wimbledon five times by that point, including the previous two championships, and she was also a three-time U.S. Open champion. Riggs had specifically challenged her before and she had turned him down, but she decided to accept after he beat another strong female player, Margaret Court.
Sports were different in the 1970s. This was well before the wall-to-wall coverage of ESPN and other cable networks—and even popular sports received only cursory coverage. ABC, however, had carved out a niche with its show Wide World of Sports, and the channel leaped at the chance to publicize and televise the match. Gale In Context: U.S. History includes decade-specific content that puts such popular culture phenomena into perspective. Part of the appeal for ABC was that tennis was growing in popularity in the United States, especially with the middle class. More importantly, the women’s liberation movement, colloquially known as women’s lib, was a hot and divisive topic. ABC knew that a staged-for-TV match like this would draw a huge audience. Indeed, it did.
It was held at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, before 30,000 spectators, with more than 50 million watching on television. King has talked of the pressure she felt: “Title IX had just passed, and I could see people [looking] for an excuse to backtrack. I wanted to change the hearts and minds of people to match the legislation we had just gotten in place.” Despite the huge difference in age, Riggs was the heavy favorite, but in the end, King beat him handily: 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. She used her skill to make him run back and forth, and she wore him down. Gale In Context: U.S. History helps connect specific events to civil rights and social movements throughout time.
King’s surprising victory was seen at the time as a significant step forward for women’s sports and for women in general. Still, the fight for women’s equality had a long way to go. It would be another 20 years before King felt she could publicly acknowledge her lesbian identity. What students take for granted today has been won by the efforts of many—along with some strange events along the way.