Chances are, you can’t remember a historic event that happened 39 years ago today.
But it was on this day in 1973 that Billie Jean King took on Bobby Riggs in the iconic tennis match known as the Battle of the Sexes. So much more than just an athletic competition, the match became a representation of the progress women fought for –and continue to fight for — in the 1960′s and 70′s.
Held at the Houston Astrodom on September 20, before a crowd of more than 30,000, the match literally changed the way men thought about women. The competition was for $100,000 “winner take all” and King beat Riggs in straight sets 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
BILLIE JEAN KING from Billie Jean King archive
In the Sept. 21 New York Times, Neil Amdur wrote, “Most important, perhaps for women everywhere, she [King] convinced skeptics that a female athlete can survive pressure-filled situations and that men are as susceptible to nerves as women.”
Riggs was a former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion whose blunt putdowns of women’s tennis and the role of ‘today’s’ female made headlines. King initially declined the challenge but changed her mind after Riggs defeated women’s number one Margaret Court in 1973. King later explained, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”
The match may have been more of a spectacle than a sporting event, but it had enormous symbolic significance. Played just a year after the passage of Title IX, which among other things required that women be granted equal access to athletics by high schools and colleges, the match helped legitimize women’s athletics and encouraged girls to take up sports.
So many of the 90 million who watched the televised match had little faith that a woman could beat a man — due to lack of strength or talent. Thankfully, King proved them wrong.
Watch as King talks to CBS’ 60 Minutes about the era-changing event. Anyone out there remember the match? Did it have any impact on your life?