Archive for the ‘women’s lib’ Category

Last week in our history of sex column we delved into the feminist triumphs of Billie Jean King over pro tennis’ chauvinist stereotypes, so this week let’s lighten it up and talk about her sex life.

Billie Jean King was born Billie Jean Moffit in 1943 in Long Beach California.  Her family encouraged all their children to pursue sports and Billie Jean’s game of choice was tennis.  After trying it once the headstrong 11 year old declared to her parents that she was going to be the best player in the world.  Her dad, wanting her to show her seriousness, told her she’d have to save up and buy her own racket.  So, the preteen try-hard did odd jobs for her neighbours until she saved up the $9.20 she needed to buy the beautiful lavender racket she had her eye on.  The rest, is well-known history.        ikingbi001p1

Billie Jean married Larry King when she was only 21 years old and the loving couple were not afraid to admit that they got married just so they could get busy in the bedroom.  Billie claimed that all of her friends were already married so it seemed the normal thing to do, it was the 1960’s after all.  Billie Jean and Larry were a picture perfect couple, but her quick rise to tennis stardom forced the same question in every interview: “How do you balance your marriage and your career?”  This is the same nagging issue that generations of professional women are faced with.  She loudly protested that male athletes never get asked that question, they just get asked how they plan on winning the next tournament.  In fact, her successful tennis career was all too often compromised by old fashioned values when in 1971, Larry revealed to Ms magazine that Billie Jean had an abortion pre Roe v Wade.  His big mistake was sharing her secret without consulting his wife first. 

But that was not the end of her personal strife.  In 1973, while the world was focussed on her Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs, Billie Jean had another problem keeping her up at night.  For almost two years, after realizing that she was a lesbian, she had been leading a double life as doting wife to Larry and a secret lover to her personal assistant, Marilyn Barnett.  Billie Jean was torn, she had always loved her husband and had not come to terms with her homosexuality until late into her adult life.  She spent years struggling with her sexuality and keeping her tryst a secret until suddenly in 1981 she was abruptly outed by a palimony lawsuit brought upon her by Marilyn.   

Though it was not on her own terms, Billie Jean became a trailblazer as the first female athlete to publicly come out of the closet, eventually divorcing her husband in 1987.


In interviews since, she has since stated that her parents’ old fashioned homophobia kept her in the closet for longer than she had intended and that her mother struggled with it more than her father when her true self was finally revealed.  Her father has since passed and her devoted mother has done a complete turnaround in support of her daughter and gay rights.  Billie Jean claims that it wasn’t until she was 51 years old that she finally became comfortable identifying herself with the LGBT community and in doing so has become an ally and a leader for young athletes and LGBT youth alike.    

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When you type “women in tennis” into Google, the top results are “10 Sexiest Female Tennis Players” followed by “Results- Women’s Singles” and “WTA Rankings” with “The 50 Hottest Women of Tennis” not far behind.  As usual, for women in the workplace, their look determines their level of successful.

But in fact, women were playing in Wimbledon as early as 1880, wearing corsets, full length skirts, and long sleeves with straw hats, making no money at all.  The female tennis players of the early 1960s wore mod minis and called their lack of pay “shamatuerism” because they’d usually get some money under the table from chauvinist men but these same “agents” often expected sexual favours in return.  It wasn’t until 1968 when Wimbledon went pro that women started to earn a living by playing the sport they love, even though it was a mere 1/12th of what the men were making! The Original Nine, Houston, September 1973

In 1970, however the “Original Nine” women – spearheaded by the tenacious Billie Jean King – each accepted a $1 contract and left the USTA circuit to start their own pro league with Virginia Slims as their sponsor.  The athletes started in Houston and toured around the US wherever they could set up a tournament, often having to go to and buy their own balls to set it up while handing out free tickets to whomever they met along the way.  They defined themselves as women who wanted more than just to be placated with a basic salary, and did their best to take charge of their careers. 

In 1971, just one year after the very first Virginia Slims invitational, champion Billie Jean King astounded all the non-believers and winning a total of $100,000 that year.  This was a lot of money for an athlete back then!

This newfound excitement over women’s tennis couldn’t help but lead to some backlash from the haters, particularly from self-proclaimed male chauvinist ex-pro tennis player Bobby Riggs.  His broad and brash statements that “women don’t play half as good as men” caught the media’s attention as he challenged Billie Jean to a match, hoping to prove that women were not worth realizing their pipe dreams for equal rights.  Unfortunately for progressive women everywhere Billie Jean King did not accept Riggs’ shallow challenge but on Mother’s Day 1973, another tennis champion, Margaret Court did, and she lost the match badly.  That same year after winning the Triple Crown at Wimbledon, Billie Jean stepped up for women everywhere to redeem theriggs v king Mother’s Day Massacre and finally accepted Riggs’ childish dare.  She beat him outright, three sets to zero.  After admitting defeat the showman jumped over the net, shook her hand and told her “I underestimated you.” 

The Original Nine have now become the Women’s Tennis Association and some tennis tournaments now have equal prize money for men and women.  Billie Jean King became synonymous with Gloria Steinman as far as women’s right were concerned, and even went on to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor from President Obama in 2009.  Although this seems like a complete turnaround in gender politics in the sport, no matter how many grand slams Serena Williams wins, the media will likely never stop focusing on her outfits. 

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