Founding Feminists: September 20, 1973

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.

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Game, set, match! Even with the carnival atmosphere, and hype more suited to professional wrestling than tennis, Billie Jean King’s 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 rout of Bobby Riggs earlier this evening was a major triumph for women in sports, and for the revitalized feminist movement itself.

Though King was intently focused on giving Riggs some lessons in how the game is played, he wasn’t her only opponent, and tonight wasn’t just about tennis. She was battling all the traditional assumptions and ancient stereotypes about men and women that the swaggering Riggs proudly embraced, and came to personify in the months since he first issued his challenge to the world’s best female tennis players.

Following months of verbal volleying, here they were at a packed Houston Astrodome, before a live television audience of about 50 million in the U.S., plus viewers in 36 other countries, with Howard Cosell and Rosemary Casals present to do an uninhibited commentary for ABC.

Male supremacists confidently awaited a repeat of Riggs’ far less publicized 6-2, 6-1 trouncing of a clearly rattled Margaret Court on Mother’s Day, ready to cheer his victory, and reassure themselves that feminism was just another passing fad, and no real challenge to the status quo.

Schoolgirls, whose opportunities to play competitive sports are now rapidly expanding thanks to Title IX, and who see King as a role model, tuned in as well. Their mothers and grandmothers, who remembered being barred from some sports when they were growing up, or whose teams never had the funding or respect they deserved, were watching too, eagerly looking forward to applauding any shot that got past Riggs. The claim that men are so athletically superior to women that even a man who hadn’t won at Wimbledon since 1939 could easily defeat a woman who won there two months ago was about to be tested, and it made for high tension and irresistible real-life television drama.

But before some no-nonsense tennis, there was another bit of flamboyance that the sport had never seen before, and is unlikely to ever witness again. King entered the stadium first, on a gold litter straight out of Cecil B. DeMille’s “Cleopatra,” carried by several well-conditioned male track and field athletes from nearby Rice University.

Riggs entered in a gold-wheeled rickshaw, pulled by six professional models in tight red and gold outfits that left no mystery as to why he dubbed them “Bobby’s Bosom Buddies.” And just to make sure that none of the 30,492 fans in the stands would mistake this for a traditional tennis match, a band blared march music while clowns and other costumed characters frolicked about in front of large banners being waved by champagne-sipping spectators who had paid up to $100 for some of the better seats.

Finally came the mutual introductions, and in keeping with the spirit of the occasion, Riggs presented King with a giant “Sugar Daddy” caramel lollypop courtesy of his principal sponsor. She responded by giving him a live (and presumably male chauvinist) pig. The piglet, named “Larimore Hustle” (Larimore is Bobby’s middle name, and hustling his real game) would be one of the few things King sent his way earlier this evening that Riggs would be able to handle. In the first set alone, Billie Jean won 26 of her 34 points with shots that Bobby’s racquet couldn’t even touch. By the end of the match it was 70 out of 109. Riggs had said that women just didn’t have the nerves to play under pressure, but he turned out to be the one making the double-faults into the net when it was his turn to serve.

This wasn’t just a win, it was a big enough drubbing that there will be no debate about whether luck played any part in the result, or if King just had an extraordinarily good night. After running him around the court to the point of exhaustion, King left Riggs with just enough strength to leap the net to congratulate her as Billie Jean tossed her racquet high into the air. Then, in one of those unforgettable TV moments, King stood in the middle of the stadium with the huge winner’s trophy raised over her head as the crowd cheered itself hoarse.

Surprisingly, Riggs made no excuses, and was among the first to say that he’d been outplayed. In the interview room afterward, he said : “Billie Jean is too good. Too quick. I got the ball past her but she not only returned it but made a better shot than I did. Too good. Too quick. She deserved to win it.”

Despite having recently won her fifth Wimbledon singles title, Billie Jean said, “I feel this is the culmination of my 19 years in tennis.” Not only did she think that her win was good for women, but for the game as well, with millions of people getting their first exposure to it. “I’ve played tennis since I was 11,” she said, “and I love it very much. When I was young I thought it was a sport just for the rich and white. There were a lot of non-tennis people who saw tennis for the first time tonight. You know I believe in spectator participation, so a lot of my dreams came true tonight.”

via Mitchell Weinstock
via Mitchell Weinstock

This evening King changed not just tennis, but the country’s attitude toward women athletes and women’s equality in general. In just two hours and four minutes, King may have given as big a boost to women’s sports as last year’s passage of Title IX, which will assure that the girls who are inspired by her feat will finally get the same access to school sports as the boys, and enjoy the same lifelong benefits from their experience. Thank you, Billie Jean, for an evening that will always be remembered in both sports and feminist history!

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