Forty-eight years ago, on September 20, 1973, 90 million people worldwide watched top women’s tennis player, Billie Jean King, 29, defeat former champion, Bobby Riggs, 55, in the Battle of the Sexes. I was eight and not a sports fan, but King has been on my radar, at least peripherally, ever since.
Just because you know a few facts about someone doesn’t mean you really know them, though, so it’s been a delight listening to King narrate her recently released autobiography, All In. It’s a long listen—18 hours—but King provides an engaging, enlightening account of her lifelong fight for equal treatment and pay for women in sports. And the fact that I don’t understand or particularly care about tennis didn’t inhibit my enjoyment of the book one bit!
One surprising takeaway is just how early King’s sensitivity to injustice and inequality, along with her commitment to rooting it out, kicked in. As an athletic, sports-loving girl growing up in the 1950s, King regularly ran up against gender-based stereotypes and restrictions. They ranged from being yanked from a photo of junior tennis tournament participants for wearing shorts instead of a skirt, to watching top teen boy tennis players getting comped for meals at the Los Angeles Tennis Club while she, a top teen girl, ate brown-bag lunches from home, to being told at 15 that she’d be good because she was ugly. “Even if you’re not a born activist, life can damn sure make you one,” she says of these early experiences.
Though young, King’s own run-ins with gender-based slights and limitations sensitized her to race-based discrimination as well. In 1955, while attending a championship tournament at the Los Angeles Country Club, she was particularly struck by “how white everything was.” She had what she describes as an epiphany:
I told myself that day that I would spend my life fighting for equal rights and opportunities for everyone, so no one felt scorned or left out. I believed our church’s teaching that I was put on this earth to do good with my life. Now I had a better idea what my calling could be: I could bring people together through tennis. If I was good enough and fortunate enough to be No. 1 in the world, tennis would be my platform.
King achieved number 1 ranking in the world for the first time in 1966 (she’d go on to achieve it five additional times) and she stayed true to her calling–leveraging personal success to fight for social change. All athletic champions feel pressure to stay at the top of their game, but for King the stakes were higher than personal glory: “Unless I was number 1, I wouldn’t be listened to,” she’s stated. And to me, learning more about these fights for equal rights, especially what went on behind the scenes, was the most interesting and inspiring aspect of the book.
Here are just a few of the fights you’ll learn more about if you tackle All In:
- In 1970, despite threats of suspension from the male-run tennis establishment, King, along with eight other women, signed $1 contracts with Gladys Heldman, publisher of World Tennis magazine, to create the first women’s pro tennis circuit.
- King campaigned vigorously for equal tournament prize money for women tennis players who were paid significantly less than their male peers—sometimes by a margin of eight to one. The U.S. Open was the first major tournament to offer pay equity, in 1973, after King threatened to boycott, but Wimbledon didn’t come around until 2007.
- When King started college in 1961 she’d already won her first Wimbledon championship, but no sports scholarships were forthcoming because she was a woman. Just over a decade later, King testified before Congress in support of Title IX. Passed in 1972, this legislation prohibited sex discrimination in all federally funded school programs, including sports. This meant schools had to start distributing athletic scholarship dollars equitably between male and female student athletes.
If you like inspiring reads that shows how much work goes into achieving incremental social progress, All In is definitely worth checking out!
King, Billie Jean, et al. All In: An Autobiography. Random House Audio, 2021.