The story of a tennis champion and champion for equality.
Life Story: Billie Jean King
Billie Jean Moffitt playing tennis in Long Beach, CA
Billie Jean Moffitt playing tennis in Long Beach, CA, ca. 1957. New-York Historical Society Library.
Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King, April, 2, 1977, Family Circle Magazine Cup tournament at Hilton Head Island. Kathy Willens/Associated Press.
Billie Jean Moffitt was born in 1943 in Long Beach, California. When she was 11 years old, she started playing tennis on the free public courts in her hometown. Through tennis, Billie Jean learned that girls often faced different standards than boys. During one tennis tournament, Billie Jean was excluded from a group photo for wearing shorts instead of a dress.
At 13, Billie Jean had an epiphany. She was at the Los Angeles Tennis Club and thinking about the future of tennis. As she looked out over the courts, she noticed everyone wore white socks, white shoes, and white clothes and played with white tennis balls. And everyone was white. She asked herself, “Where is everyone else?” From that moment on, she committed her life to equality for all.
A few weeks after graduating high school, Billie Jean and her doubles partner Karen Hantze won the Wimbledon Ladies Doubles Championship. They are still the youngest women to ever win the title. That year, Billie Jean was the number three tennis player in the United States. But she did not have a clear path for the future. No colleges offered athletic scholarships for women and there was no such thing as an official professional tennis player. But Billie Jean continued to play in tournaments and improve her game.
Billie Jean married Larry King in 1965. Larry fully supported Billie Jean’s goal of building a career in tennis.
By 1966, Billie Jean was ranked the number one tennis player in the world. In 1966, 1967, and 1968 she won the Wimbledon Ladies Singles Championship. She also won the U.S. Nationals (now called the U.S. Open) in 1967 and the Australian Open in 1968.
In 1968, the tennis world offered players the chance to be professional for the first time. This meant that players could sign contracts and earn a guaranteed salary. Billie Jean signed a $40,000 contract with the National Tennis League. While being a contract professional was a huge step forward, Billie Jean was quickly dissatisfied with the rest of the tennis world. The major tournaments, like Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, treated the male players much better than the women. They earned more prize money, had more opportunities to compete, garnered more press, and received more sponsorships.
Billie Jean spoke out about the inequities, but the tennis world refused to change. In response, she and eight other players signed a $1 contract with Gladys Heldman, the publisher of World Tennis Magazine. Through the contract, the players broke away to play in a women’s only tournament in Houston, Texas. They became known as the “Original 9.” They risked being banned as they fought for equality and their own professional survival. Later that year, they started a national tour sponsored by the Virginia Slims cigarette brand. The governing body of tennis in the United States threatened to keep the women out of any Grand Slam tournaments. But the popularity of the Virginia Slims tour proved that they were legitimate and successful professionals. In 1971, Billie Jean became the first female athlete to earn more than $100,000. By 1972, she was the first female athlete to be named sportsperson of the year by Sports Illustrated magazine.
The most important words that have helped me in life, when things have gone right or when things have gone wrong, are ‘accept responsibility.’
In 1973, she founded the Women’s Tennis Association and helped convince the U.S. Open to give equal prize money to the male and female winners. That same year, retired tennis player Bobby Riggs approached Billie Jean with an idea. Bobby challenged Billie Jean to play in a televised match that would connect to current debates about women’s equality. Billie Jean initially refused to take part in the idea.
Instead, Bobby convinced the top-ranking player Margaret Court to accept. Margaret lost. While the match seemed like a promotional stunt, it carried symbolic weight, especially given the growing women’s liberation movement in the United States. Suddenly everyone was talking about how a retired middle-aged tennis player easily beat the top women’s player in the world.
Once Margaret lost, Billie Jean knew she had to play Bobby There was intense media attention, and Billie Jean and Bobby gave interviews, posed for photographs, and teased each other in front of the press. The match became known as the Battle of the Sexes.
Preparing for the match was incredibly stressful for Billie Jean. She was at the top of her career. Bobby had not played professionally in years and was the same age as her father. But she respected Bobby because he was a former No. 1 player in the world. Billie Jean knew that the world would be watching and that the match was not only about tennis but also about social change.
In the end, Billie Jean did what she did best – play world-class tennis. She beat Bobby in straight sets: 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 and won the $100,000 prize-money check. Over 90 million people around the world watched it on TV. Her victory was a huge moment in pop culture, and celebrated by many across the world, especially girls and women.
Throughout the 1970s, Billie Jean’s career aligned with the women’s liberation movement. In November of 1973 she spoke before a Senate education subcommittee about discrimination of women’s sports and in support of an education equity act. In 1974, she founded the Women’s Sports Foundation and womenSports magazine. In 1977, she attended the National Women’s Conference and marched alongside Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. She hoped that the women’s movement would be more inclusive of women athletes in their campaign for equality, but also understood that there were many facets to achieving full gender equality.
In 1981, Billie Jean faced one of the biggest challenges in her life. Her personal secretary, Marilyn Barnett, publicly outed her as a lesbian. Marilyn revealed that she and Billie Jean had been in a secret relationship. Billie Jean held a media conference and told the truth. Although she expressed deep regret and asked for privacy, the scandal became very public and hurt her career. She lost almost $2 million dollars in endorsements.
Billie Jean struggled to accept herself as a gay woman. She had grown up in a conservative family and was afraid to come out. She also felt pressure from the tennis world, her sponsors, and her husband.
In 1987, Billie Jean and Larry divorced. By that time, Billie Jean was in a relationship with Ilana Kloss, a former professional number one doubles player in the world. Once Billie Jean was out, she became an advocate for the acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Billie Jean retired from playing professional tennis in 1983 with an astonishing 39 Grand Slam titles, including a record 20 Wimbledon Championships. She has stayed active in the tennis world by coaching, mentoring, commentating, and advising on a range of projects. She also continues to work as an activist, speaking out for equality for all.
In 2006, the United States Tennis Association renamed the National Tennis Center, home of the US Open, the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. In 2009 she was the first woman athlete to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. And in 2020, the Fed Cup, a global annual world cup of women’s tennis competition, was renamed the Billie Jean King Cup.
Today, she continues tirelessly through the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative to be an advocate for equality, inclusion, and diversity both on and off the court.
activism: To work towards political or social change.
cash grab: A product or event designed for the sole purpose of making money.
doubles: In tennis, a match played with two players on each side of the court.
epiphany: A sudden realization.
feminism: The belief that men and women are equal.
Grand Slam: Refers to the four major tennis championships – Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the French Open, and the Australian open. Someone who has a “Grand Slam title” has won one of these events.
LGBTQIA+: Acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual. A term used to include people of all gender identities and sexual orientations that are not cisgender and/or heterosexual.
singles: In tennis, a match played by one player on each side of the court.
straight sets: In tennis, to win a match without losing a set.
United States Tennis Association: The governing body for tennis in the United States.
U.S. Open: The tennis championships hosted by the United States.
Wimbledon: The tennis championships hosted by The All England Lawn & Tennis Club