This week I’m devoting this blog to a three-part retrospective on Billie Jean King, who defeated Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes” on Sept. 20, 1973. I’m particularly interested in her enduring public persona and how she embodies an ideal that has eluded other women’s sports leaders. Here’s Part 1 from Monday and Part 2 from Wednesday.
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Before the modern-day feminist movement arrived in the 1970s, women weren’t strangers to the public arena, and quite a few were more than capable of scrapping it out with men for respect and public acclaim.
In the world of arts, letters and journalism, Mary McCarthy, Dorothy Parker and Dorothy Thompson were as well-known and accomplished as the notable male counterparts who shared their professional, and sometimes personal, company.
The figure of Babe Didrikson Zaharias loomed large in the world of sports, as she demonstrated her athletic prowess from the 1932 Olympics to golf as a founding member of the LPGA Tour, and won a U.S. Open after being diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually claim her life.
It’s true that these women, and many others like them, were not commonplace, and that opportunities for more of them to complete in that public arena did not abound. But in many ways I find their examples — especially the writers — more compelling to draw from than what contemporary feminism has given us.
There are exceptions, and Billie Jean King is one of them, for sports was a rather barren landscape for women until her arrival, and her match with Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes” 40 years ago today.
The timing for that night in Houston was monumental, coming a year after the passage of Title IX, which didn’t include any mention of sports, but that many activists knew would have an impact on college athletics.
And King embraced the public arena like the Babe in sports, and women of artistic and intellectual accomplishment in mid-century.
In his masterful book “The Joy of Sports,” Michael Novak starts off a chapter on women in sports referencing the King-Riggs match, and how she basked in the aftermath:
Billie Jean later shared a television talk show with John Unitas and Henry Aaron. She liked their company. They understood each other. ‘That was really great. We really got into it,’ she said afterward.
Is Billie Jean the wave of the future? Since I have two daughters, ages eight and three, in some regards I devoutly hope so. In others, I am not so sure.
Novak, a conservative Catholic theologian, wondered what the cultural implications of the women’s sports movement would be, and offered this warning:
One of the most simplistic mistakes of the modern era is belief in the easy manipulation of culture.
He didn’t have anything to worry about with King, but women’s sports leaders moved away from her example to fight an unfortunate culture war, as I wrote in my e-book last year, “Beyond Title IX.”
And while King, the founder of the Women’s Sports Foundation, remains a stalwart defender of Title IX and most of establishment women’s sports activism, she’s managed to stay above those culture wars. Even in a generally positive account of her impact, author Susan Wade fall into this trap, perpetuating the line that “sports are politics” and that “sports feminism questions an athletic system structured around keeping men and women separate, rather than encouraging them to play and compete together.”
But it’s King’s essential mainstream appeal, and her undiminished passion for tennis that, as she approaches the age of 70, keeps her squarely in the forefront of discussions about women and sports. The World Team Tennis mixed doubles circuit she created more than three decades ago embodies this.
The many achievements of women in sports in more recent times, however, have come against the backdrop of a present-day framing of women, sports and feminism that has become brittle and intolerant of the dynamism and robust conversation of King’s era.
Establishment feminists, including those in sports, as I also wrote in my book, brook no dissent. While male sports figures — even those in women’s sports, like UConn basketball coach Geno Auriemma — engender constant flaming in the media, their female counterparts are routinely lionized. I wrote on Monday that a critic of the “American Masters” profile of King skimmed over the Barnett affair, and he wasn’t trying to be sensational about it. He thought it was a substantive element of her narrative that was glossed over, and that’s a fair point.
Women athletes today are hoisted on a pedestal of virtue and perfection, unless they take up with somebody deemed unacceptable. And even then, the male “thug” whom goalkeeper Hope Solo married gets the worst of the treatment.
We’ve regressed on the subject of sexual violence, with the Steubenville football controversy dredging up empty, familiar cries of a “rape culture” that impugns an entire town and closes down public discourse. The most privileged women in America apparently need the White House to clamp down on free speech so that they don’t have to hear things they don’t want to hear.
At times, it smacks of the 1970s.
While the times we live in now, especially for women in sports, are vastly better, in some ways we’re much poorer.
In the 1970s, as American society was confronted with racial tensions, women’s liberation and gay rights, the culture reflected that thirst to talk about, and understand, what was happening.
Now, we’re afraid to say — or even think — the wrong thing, for fear of a lawsuit, or of losing a job, or of being shamed by blogging vigilantes.
We endlessly Tweet about “edgy” TV shows like “The Sopranos,” and “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” But can you imagine a program like “All in the Family” being made today? Or “Maude?”
Those shows didn’t flinch from a hot topic, and neither did Billie Jean King at the height of her fame, even when the glare of the spotlight flashed on her private affairs in a very unflattering way.
I know I may sound a bit nostalgiac here . . .
Thank goodness we don’t need to reprise “The Battle of the Sexes” to prove women can compete with men on the biggest stage of the public arena, whether it’s sports, politics, business or elsewhere.
But that’s not all the feminist movement was galvanized to accomplish. Title IX was passed to help women direct the courses of their own individual lives by cracking down on sex discrimination in education, and it’s been a remarkable success.
Yet too much contemporary feminism is mired in the groupthink of chasing “male” power, privilege and status, as if that’s the only measure of a good, compelling life. It’s all about cracking the “glass ceiling” and taking on those dastardly, oppressive men.
This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of “The Feminine Mystique,” but what we have today is a long cry from what Betty Friedan was responding to. Elite women at Ivy League institutions and high government positions wail about how they can’t have it all, which rings hollow for middle- and working-class women. Here’s writer Rachel Stier,in a strong denunciation of present-day feminist books, which she scathingly labels Works on Women:
Here is a Wall Street warrior in the making, or a college co-ed. But where is the writer, artist, scholar of literature, private eye, or woman who has climbed the Himalayas? No one in these books seems to be doing anything that she loves, or has taken a risk for what she believes in. In fact, what you love and what you believe in are not even remotely relevant here.
A good chunk of sports feminism has fallen for this too, with continuing gripes about the dearth of female athletic directors, the business struggles of women’s professional sports (non-tennis) and the alleged “sexualization” of female athletes by the media.
These are women activists who, instead of engaging fully in the public arena, hide behind ideology and attempt to wall off any challenge to their views. They, too, are drained of joy, and it takes no great risk to emptily complain about the “patriarchy.”
I’d like to think that by recalling King’s activism we can also view it as a call to re-energize the passion for sports that she inspired so many of us. Because that’s what girls and women had to have before they had anything else — opportunities, Title IX, etc.
Forty years ago today, I was a 12-year-old babysitter totally unaware of how much I would be affected by that night in Houston. I bought a Wilson Billie Jean King Cup tennis racket that hangs above my writing desk today, a reminder how much that event, and that time in my life, has meant.
Whether the match was rigged or not didn’t matter then, and it doesn’t matter now.
For young women of my generation, the King legacy may never have another equal.