Women Win On and Off Court

Game, Set, Match

Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports

By Susan Ware

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2011, 288 pp., $30.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Laura Pappano

It is nearly impossible to read, report on, or discuss any major women’s athletic event—the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team’s ninety-game winning streak, Kristine Lilly’s retirement from professional soccer—without invoking Title IX. In fact, genuflecting before the 1972 legislation has become reflexive in women’s sports. The practice suggests a linear cause and effect: Title IX passes; women achieve athletic success.  But, as Susan Ware suggests in Game, Set, Match, the reality is more complicated.

Title IX was necessary, says Ware, but it was not sufficient. Rather, she argues, the great lunge forward, what Ware calls a “revolution” in women’s sports, was possible because of the law, the rebellious and charismatic Billie Jean King, and the women’s liberation movement.

The book begins, as you might expect, with the September 20, 1973, Battle of the Sexes tennis match between the 29-year-old King and the 55-year-old Bobby Riggs at the Houston Astrodome. Rather than identifying it as a holy moment for feminism, Ware says that the 48 million people who watched the game on TV had many reasons for feeling it was “more than just a tennis match”: they wanted a distraction from Watergate, inflation, and the energy crisis; they were curious (or worried) about the new women’s liberation movement; they were excited by the media hype Riggs and King had engineered to increase interest in the contest. The match, Ware says, was “a ‘perfect storm’ as it were, in the history of sports, entertainment, and modern feminism.”

Ware’s book is not a straightforward march through the history of women’s sports; neither is it a personal biography of King. Ware sets herself an ambitious challenge. She has many strands to braid together, and they are not of equal heft. Fortunately, the book is well-written and -researched, and while at times the thesis seems to be slipping away, she mostly manages to pull it back. The book matters precisely because it digs into the messy, even uneasy relationships between King and women’s liberation leaders, and more broadly, between advocates for women’s athletics and second-wave feminists, bringing together histories that have for too long been considered separately.

In the 1970s, feminists and female athletes battled the same barriers of pay, access, and status—but they generally looked past one another. At times, they even appeared to work at cross purposes, as the athletes failed to understand their power as high-profile symbols, and well-organized feminists left the athletes to figure out battle plans on their own.

For example, following passage of Title IX, Ware says, the National Organization for Women set ambitious national goals—a sports committee in every chapter!—and even entered the debate about what access should look like, questioning the wisdom of sex-segregated sports. In the end, though, “that ambitious agenda was matched by a budget of only $705, typical of the way in which NOW task forces were often given broad mandates but little support to carry out their goals,” she says.

NOW never developed an official sports policy statement and by 1977 the task force was no longer in operation. NOW later tried to take credit for being the lead on Title IX (‘Passage of this legislation was one of our proudest moments’), but such a statement vastly overinflates its involvement at the time.

In telling the story of women’s athletic strides through King, Ware selects the most visible, successful, attention-seeking, and vocal female athlete of the past century. King’s self-discovery—her drive to make tennis a paying career, her public coming to terms with her sexual orientation—reflected common struggles at the time. Her battles were others’ battles. She was just willing to speak up—and push. Yet King was a reluctant feminist, annoyed at being asked by Time magazine about “women’s lib” and ambivalent about the Equal Rights Amendment, even as she pressed for equality for herself. “Even as she was increasingly associated in the public mind with women’s issues,” says Ware, “Billie Jean King often resisted the feminist mantle, wanting to be seen as an individual and an athlete, not as the spokesman for a cause.”

King was instrumental in achieving for female tennis players what so many wanted: better pay. Rather than focusing on a broad agenda, King squarely, pragmatically, worked on the things that bothered her. In 1968, at the dawn of tennis’s Open Era—when professionals as well as amateurs were allowed to play in tournaments such as Wimbledon—King hated the way men were paid so much more than women. She said, “It was the hypocrisy of the thing that bugged me the most. I wanted the chance to make money, honest money, doing what I did best. It was that simple.”

The final straw for King was the Pacific Southwest Open, a tournament scheduled for September 1970. The top prize for men was $12,500; for women it was just $1,500—and the women’s expenses were not covered unless they made the quarterfinals. King and eight other women—the Original Nine—refused to play, risking expulsion from the US Lawn Tennis Association. Instead, they organized the women-only Houston Virginia Slims Invitational, and their rebellion helped launch the series of women-only tournaments that became the Virginia Slims tour. In 1971, King became the first woman tennis player to earn $100,000 a year—an accomplishment that earned her a congratulatory phone call from President Richard M. Nixon.

King’s victories and struggles—from her Wimbledon titles and the business empire she built with husband Larry (including World Team Tennis), to a failed women’s sports magazine and a messy public lawsuit waged by a former lover—make for juicy reading. Most important, though, her story provides a sense of scale. Like a figure placed in the foreground of a photograph, King helps us measure the landscape for women athletes and the difficulty of attaining progress.

Ware makes a point early in the book about participation numbers. Typically, when we credit Title IX for opening doors, we cite figures showing, say, that girls’ participation in high school sports rose 979 percent—from 294,000 to 3.17 million—between 1971 and 2009. We assume this was because of Title IX. In fact, observes Ware, most of that increase happened in the early 1970s, before Title IX had taken effect. (The law was passed in 1972, but the regulations weren’t complete until 1975 and didn’t go into effect until 1978). High-school participation figures, Ware says, “show that the sharp upward climb peaked in the following sports in 1977-1978: basketball, field hockey, gymnastics, swimming and diving, tennis, indoor and outdoor track and field, and volleyball.” Participation rates for basketball, field hockey, gymnastics and outdoor track and field that year were at “an absolute all-time high.” College participation follows a similar pattern. Ware concludes,

[E]ven though second-wave feminism never made sports a high priority, the supportive backdrop aided advocates who were pressing for changes in sports and recreation programs across the country. To use a metaphor from cycling: sports drafted in feminism’s forward momentum.

She suggests that without the “symbiotic connection between the women’s sports revolution and the explosion of modern feminism in the 1970s, it is quite likely that the story of Title IX would have been far less dramatic.”

For advocates of women’s sports, this should come as welcome news. The practice of pinning the growth of the women’s sports movement entirely on one law is not only inaccurate but also politically risky. After all, critics of Title IX love to claim that women aren’t truly interested in sports, and that the law has artificially created and fueled an enterprise that wouldn’t otherwise exist.  How much better and truer it is to see the UConn women’s basketball team or a player like Kristine Lilly not as the lucky beneficiaries of a single piece of legislation but as part of a general forward momentum, a drive that gained power from Billie Jean King, from feminists, and from Title IX. Let’s get the history right.

Laura Pappano, the writer-in-residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW), is a journalist who writes about education and gender/sport issues. She is a co-author of Playing With the Boys (2008) and the author of Inside School Turnarounds (2010). She is the founder and editor of the FairGameNews.com blog, which is part of the Women’s Sports Leadership Project at WCW.

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