September History Hits: Battle of the Sexes

On September 20, 1973, tennis star Billie Jean King faced down retired tennis player Bobby Riggs in a high-profile match that would come to be known as the Battle of the Sexes. The match was and is the most watched tennis match in history, viewed by over 90 million people worldwide. The match is considered a major event in the feminist movement of the 70s, encouraging women to participate in sports, advocate for equal pay in the workplace, and never underestimate themselves.

In 1973, women were just barely starting to be included in major sporting events. 1972 was the first year women were allowed to run in the Boston Marathon. Title IX was passed the same year, which required schools to provide funding for female sports. During these years, women’s tennis was becoming a more popular sport, and female tennis players were participating in their own tournaments. Many male tennis players were unsettled by this but perhaps none so vocally as Bobby Riggs. By 1973, Bobby Riggs was retired, but he looked for a moment of fame by challenging the top female players of the time to matches. He wanted to prove that even a mediocre, retired tennis player could beat the best female players.

Billie Jean King, now considered a feminist icon, understood the impact that such a match would have on women’s sports and the feminist movement. She agreed to face Riggs at the Houston Astrodome with a prize of $100,000 up for grabs. The 30,000 people in attendance watched as Riggs took the court wearing a jacket that read in bright red letters, “Sugar Daddy.” King was carried onto the field atop a litter resting on the shoulders of four men. King beat Riggs in three straight sets. When the match ended, Riggs approached King and said, “I underestimated you.”

Following her landmark victory, King never stopped campaigning for equality. She demanded equal amounts of prize money in men and women’s tournaments. She founded the Women’s Sports Foundation that provided women and girls with greater access to sports teams and defended Title IX in lawsuits. She founded the Billie Jean King Initiative, a non-profit that “address[es] the critical issues required to achieve diverse, inclusive leadership in the workforce.” She has also been a relentless advocate for LGBTQ rights. It turns out Riggs did severely underestimate Billie Jean King. In the Battle of the Sexes match and in the rest of her life, King showed the impact that one person can make in the fight for equality.

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Read more about Billie Jean King’s exceptional career and life in her autobiography: