Why Tennis Legend Billie Jean King Fights For Equal Rights On Court & Off

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Tennis legend Billie Jean King is not one to shy away from a fight. She is not only the winner of 39 Grand Slam titles, but she also created the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association), has been inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame, and is the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But aside from her impressive achievements on the tennis court throughout the 1970s, she has not stopped fighting for equal rights in other sectors.

In May 2014 she gave an awesome commencement speech at Simmons College in Boston, and as we look ahead to what 2015 holds for women, it is a great time to start off the new year reflecting how far we have come, but also how much we still need to go to battle for.

Simmons is an all-female college, so it was definitely fitting for BJK to speak to that audience, but speaking about the importance of equality should by no means be limited to just women. It is a humanity issue, and we need men to fight for equality and women’s rights just as much as we fight for it ourselves.

One of the first things Billie Jean said was that women in leadership are going to be a great help to changing much of the status quo in society when it comes to gender stereotypes.

“We need more women in leadership positions. You know we’re not even at 20 percent in congress; we’re at like 19.8 percent or something. It’s just phenomenal to think that in the United States of America in 2014 that we’re not doing better than that. That we’re making 77 cents on the dollar for women. We really have to change that. Women have to change that but probably more importantly men have to change that. We have to really fight for equality and inclusion of everyone,” she said.

What most people may not realize is that Tennis is at the top of gender equality sports when it comes to pay for men and women, and the female athletes have Billie Jean King to thank as one of the pioneers of this movement.

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On September 20, 1973 in Houston (ironically the same year that Roe v. Wade was passed in the Supreme Court allowing women in America to get abortions legally) Billie Jean played an exhibition match against noted male chauvinistic tennis player Bobby Riggs to prove women deserve to be paid equally because they can handle the same heat on the court.

Bobby Riggs was 55 and claimed even at his old age he could beat a woman (Billie Jean was at the peak of her career at 29 years old at the time). Billie beat Bobby in three straight sets and she won $100,000 as well as the silence of Bobby and every other critic of women’s equality in sports.

After forming the WTA, she began the fight to have women paid the same amount of prize money as men. It wasn’t until 2007 that Wimbledon and The French Open finally joined the US Open and the Australian Open to pay female winners the same as men, and that was thanks in part to current WTA president Stacey Allaster.

Although Stacey played a huge hand in changing the status quo of female players in the modern game, she credits women like Billie Jean King as well as Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert an even Venus Williams for being on the forefront of championing equal pay.

The 1970’s were certainly a historic time for women in America because just a year earlier, then-President Nixon signed the Title IX legislation which made it a requirement under law for male and female students to be afforded equal federal funding in their high school and college studies. Yep, it wasn’t too long ago that women did not have the same access at an academic level to realize their sporting dreams.

If it wasn’t for women fighting to challenge the status quo, women in sport would be a lot further back than they are today. In her 2014 Simmons College speech Billie Jean made mention of the fact that while progress has been made, we shouldn’t be under the assumption that the hard work is over.

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“We’re not even scratching the surface. We don’t have the opportunities at the professional level. And if you take women’s sports, women’s high school is exactly where the boys were in 1971 and [1972]. And everybody thinks we’ve arrived and we’re equal and we’re not! We have 1.3 million less opportunities in high school than boys. So everyone out there, it’s not what you think it is. The perception is much better than it is in reality.”

One of the other things she believes in fighting for is LGBT rights, and during the 2014 Winter Sochi Olympic Games, people were astonished at her courage to go to Russia which has an openly hostile attitude toward homosexuals, and which she believes has given bullies almost a free reign to treat the LGBT community as unequal. She was warned not to go, but because of her history in not shying away from a worthwhile fight, she went anyway.

“I think it’s better to go and show up — I’m a big believer in that. Just like going to the Middle East when we had the women’s tennis championships in Doha. Everybody was calling me — ‘Why are you going over there with the way the women’s laws are?’ That’s why we need to go over there. We need to be seen. We need to be heard. We need to show there are different ways for both men and women to live their lives and have choices. So I think it’s very important to go and not ignore.”

The statement may have been said almost a year ago, but her words ring true today, and they are an important reminder of what we must not give up doing: speaking up and fighting for what is right. It is easier to allow the status quo to continue, and believe us those who created it are banking on the passivity of the masses.

However if there is anything we can learn from the example of what Billie Jean King managed to achieve both on the court and off, it is that we are all placed in unique positions to create social change. It is up to us to take the leap, move outside our comfort zones, and change history forever. Bring on 2015!

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  1. Pingback: How Women Have Gone From The Sidelines To Leading The Way In These Industries

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