In the world of professional tennis, there were two matches between a male and female player that became known as The Battle of the Sexes. They took place in 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade, and one year after congressional ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and the passage of Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity, including sports.
Bobby Riggs, a self-described “male chauvinist pig,” and once ranked the number 1 tennis player in the world, declared female tennis inferior. He was 55 years old when he challenged tennis champion Billie Jean King to a match.
King, who in 1972 became the first woman chosen as Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsperson of the Year,” declined the offer. Margaret Court, the female world champion accepted the challenge. On Mother’s Day, May 13, 1973 5,000 spectators watched their match in California. Riggs defeated Court with a 6-2, 6-1 victory—both Sports Illustrated and Time magazines celebrated him as a hero.
Riggs’ new, female taunting, celebrity status prompted Billie Jean King to accept his challenge for a match. On September 20, 1973 she entered Houston’s Astrodome with the pageantry of the Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra and defeated Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Her victory was among the most watched tennis matches in history—with 30,000 people in the stadium, and 90 million worldwide television viewers. It became known as “the drop shot and volley heard around the world.”
King was part of the Original 9, a group of women players who protested gender inequality in sports and formed the Virginia Slims Series in 1970. The Series later became the women’s players union, the Women’s Tennis Organization in 1973. The same year, The U.S. Open became the first organization to offer prize money to women and men.
President Barak Obama awarded Billie Jean King the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, in honor of her pioneering work for women’s equal rights in sports.
Billie Jean King, Pressure is a Privilege: Lessons I’ve Learned from Life and the Battle of the Sexes (2008)
Susan Ware, Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports (2015)