• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


The Billie Jean King Victory

Remembering a match and why it mattered.

September 2, 2013

The recent revelations (if that is what they are) about Bobby Riggs having thrown the pivotal match against Billie Jean King brought me back powerfully to 1973, when the match took place.

It is hard for many younger people to understand what all the fuss was about. Few people would claim (at least, few educated people would claim publicly) either that women are inherently inferior athletes or that athletic prowess is any kind of marker of competence in other spheres.

My husband and son are captivated by women's tennis because, as they explain, women's generally smaller size forces them to develop more subtle moves that are fascinating to watch.

And who cares anyway? People who have grown up post ADA and the tremendous achievements of Stephen Hawking and many other people with disabilities have a hard time taking seriously the concept that the strength and coordination necessary to winning a game are also prerequisites for other types of achievement.

Back then, though, it was different. Title IX wasn't even a distant dream for my athletically gifted friends. Girls who were good at sports were encouraged to become gym teachers. Girls who were good at science were pointed toward nursing. Etc. And we weren't that far away, temporally speaking, from FDR's energetic efforts to hide his disability lest anyone think him weak or inadequate.

As recorded here, I didn't get the sports microchip. It didn't matter. I was riveted by the match, and cheered as vociferously as any of my friends when Billie Jean brought it in. Even though he was 26 years older than she was, and in terrible physical shape, he was favored 5 to 2. At that moment, it seemed that women could do anything.

I still get a glow thinking about it, one that is only slightly diminished by the possibility that Riggs threw all three sets to wipe out a gambling debt. Billie Jean King's triumph that day was only partly dependent on her win. She, like Margaret Court, had the guts to try, to take on an established favorite, and she did it with characteristic grace and aplomb — and too many brains to throw it all away.


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