By Loretta Wrobel
As I perused the paper, a headline grabbed my attention. It was a news flash from the US Open on August 28th in New York. The opening ceremony was honoring Billie Jean King, as nearly fifty years ago, she defeated Bobby Riggs by outsmarting and outplaying the loud-mouthed Riggs who screamed that no woman was clever enough and sharp enough to beat him. Fifty years later, people still talk abut that match that was witnessed by over fifty million in the US and millions more worldwide.
What those crowds witnessed was a shift in perspective. It became the birthplace of a societal shift that drew women not only to the tennis courts but also to the legal courts, board rooms and medical schools. Women began to see possibilities of all manner of success in fields not seen as realities for women. This life-transforming event happened in 1973.
It was during the era when women were beginning to crack the long-time glass ceilings in all fields, as they gained strength and inspiration from not only the women’s movement, but all the mass movements of the 60’s and 70’s–civil rights, LGBTQ+ and antiwar demonstrations/protests. It was a grand time for women to dream their wildest fantasies and reach their highest goals.
I remember those open, free, and phenomenal years, when all possibilities were on the table. When in college at UConn, the sports arena was mainly for the male species with females confined to the stands to oooh and ahhh over the feats of their favorite male players. Part of the thinking during that era was that women had a hard time running the whole length of a basketball court due to their weaknesses. No one cared to bother with the reality of most female existence. Everything they achieved and accomplished was in addition to carrying and birthing a child, nurturing that child (children), maintaining a house, plus whatever they accomplished outside the home.
Along came Billie Jean with her star skill set and her brilliant strategies. She won the match, plus the admiration of millions of women who could now pursue their dreams. If Ms. King could do it, why couldn’t they?
This amazing tennis star already had been instrumental in forming the Women’s Tennis Association earlier in 1973. King recounts that throughout her life women have approached her, thanking her for the inspiration she provided. Just ponder that one special match proved life transforming for so many. It opened doors. Although those doors are still today not totally ajar, much progress has been made.
In Connecticut we have seen the success and popularity of the UConn Women’s basketball team that has so many devoted followers, not just females. Young women have role models to emulate. They have opportunities to learn how to become better players when they are young. We have a successful WNBA team, The Connecticut Sun, that made the playoffs again this year. We celebrate this achievement. In my college years I never would have thought this could happen, even if 50 years had elapsed!
Billie Jean King will turn 80 in November, so she is just a bit ahead of me. She continues to be active, and is supporting the new Women’s Professional Hockey League. Barack Obama told Ms. King that he saw the famous match and it influenced how he raised his daughters. What an endorsement for being in the right place at the right moment in history.
Who would have even imagined that this Battle of the Sexes still holds interest and is remembered after half a century! Truly this was a watershed moment. This one sports/political happening had a profound influence on not only women, but everyone who witnessed this out maneuvering of a boasting man
by a crafty, talented, and courageous woman.
I am in awe of the lasting significance of this well publicized contest that led to such a dramatic shift of the mindset of people in recalibrating the societal expectations of what a woman can do and how competent she is. Billie Jean demonstrated that physical agility and smarts is not confined to the male sex. It reinforced the notion that women are equal to males in their abilities to accomplish what they dream. It validated the tenets that the second wave of feminism was shouting about, during those radically changing times.
I feel proud to clearly remember what a victory for all women Ms. King scored that fateful day in 1973. I am also aware that we are still working on achieving equality in so many ways, not just in the sports area. We have a long way ahead but we are moving in the right direction and must not lose our focus. Historical change crawls slowly forward and old patterns struggle to stay alive, even when they have surpassed their usefulness.
For example, in 2023, Black Women’s Equal Pay Day does not occur until July 27th. That means that Black Women must work all those months extra in order to earn the same salary that white males earn. I see this as a very shocking reality that must be rectified in our country.
The next issue that Ms. King is addressing is aging. As a nearly 80-year-old woman, she is expected to slow down and be quiet and not raise any sand. Forget that one, this is not your average person who accepts what her fate is. She says, “We are not done yet. I’m not done yet.” I love that response from this trailblazer, who knows that it is never too late to carve new paths. She continues to work for equality and to acknowledge loudly and clearly that her work is not done. She is busier than ever and knows there is still much to do and she is on board to do it. What a classy woman with such ferocity and ability to stay on target. Good follow-through on any court.