A community of optimists hosted by Melinda French Gates

The fight for equality on and off the tennis court: A conversation between Melinda Gates and Billie Jean King

Billie Jean King holds up a circular plate trophy after winning Wimbledon in 1975
Billie Jean King holds the Wimbledon trophy after winning the Women's Singles event in 1975
Photo by Allsport UK | Getty Images
I still remember being nine years old and watching on TV with my family as Billie Jean trounced Bobby Riggs in the famous “Battle of the Sexes.” Almost 50 years later, my admiration for her as an athlete and advocate has only deepened. I recently asked Billie Jean about her historic win, her decades of activism, and how she and her partner, Ilana, are spending their days. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.

Melinda: This September will mark the 47th anniversary of the Battle of the Sexes. That match, of course, was about so much more than just tennis. Take us back in time and help us imagine the event through your eyes. When you stepped onto the court that day, what did the stakes feel like? What message did you hope your victory would send?

Billie Jean: First, it is important to set the stage for the times. In 1973, the Vietnam War was cooling down, Watergate was heating up, and the second wave of the women’s movement was at its peak. Bobby had been asking me to play him for a couple of years, and I always passed. I was busy with so many other things, specifically the start of the women’s professional tennis tour and ultimately the formation of our union, the Women’s Tennis Association.
If I lost, I was worried I would set back the progress being made in the women’s movement.
When Bobby defeated Margaret Court in what they called the “Mother’s Day Massacre,” I knew I had to play him. I did not have a choice. There was so much at stake, personally and professionally. If I lost, I was worried I would set back the progress being made in the women’s movement. I was afraid I would damage the women’s professional tennis tour, especially since we were only in our third year of existence. I didn’t want to let anyone down, and I knew I needed to play Bobby, and I had to win.

For me, playing Bobby had little to do with tennis. It may have been a tennis match, but it was all about social change. Title IX had just been passed a year earlier—on June 23, 1972—and I wanted to change the hearts and minds of people to reflect the true meaning of that groundbreaking legislation. The bottom line is the stars aligned and the plan came together. I won the match, and women felt empowered to ask for a raise at work and better, more equal conditions in their lives.
Billie Jean King holds her newly won trophy after beating Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match on September 20, 1973.
Bettmann | Getty Images
Men also changed. I call that generation of men “the first generation of men of the women’s movement.” These men saw it was possible for a woman to be their equal, and they wanted their daughters to have the same opportunities and rights as their sons.

Melinda: Let’s talk a little more about Title IX, the landmark civil rights legislation that banned discrimination on the basis of sex by federally funded educational institutions. You were a vocal advocate for the law, which has had a transformative impact on women’s sports, women’s higher education, and women’s ability to enter fields like law and medicine. Has it lived up to your expectations for it? Half a century later, has our country made the progress toward gender equality you’d hoped to see?

Billie Jean: Title IX, in its purest form, is about sexual discrimination. It is shaped as an education amendment and, in all honesty, sports were a bit of an afterthought. Prior to the passage of Title IX, many colleges and universities had quotas that limited the number of women admitted to their programs to 5 percent or less. All of that started to change when President Nixon signed Title IX into law. Title IX is one of the three most important pieces of legislation passed in the 20th century—with the other two being the passage of the 19th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act. The 37 words that make up Title IX are 37 of the most powerful words ever put into law. That is why we must constantly work to protect the intent of the law and ensure it is never diminished.
Billie Jean King speaks at The Women's Sports Foundation's 38th Annual Salute to Women in Sports Awards Gala in 2017 in New York City.
Photo by Nicholas Hunt | Getty Images
Title IX has been, and will continue to be, challenged throughout history. That is one of the reasons I founded the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974. Working with the National Women’s Law Center, we are the sports guardians of Title IX, and we work every day to keep the law strong, relevant, and vibrant.
A quote graphic that reads, "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." - Title 9 of the education amendments of 1972
When it comes to gender equality, we have a long way to go, and we can never let our guard down. We don’t have equal representation in Congress. We have never elected a woman as our president. And, we do not have equal pay for equal work. So, while I am so supportive and grateful of the work we have done with Title IX, I am not happy with how long it is taking us to achieve full equality.

Tell us about the work you’re doing today at the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative to promote and celebrate inclusive leadership. What do you think it will take to get a more diverse range of voices into positions of power and influence? And how do you make the case to businesses and organizations that this has to be a priority?

Billie Jean: Through founding the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sports Foundation, we have made serious headway for women in and out of sports. One of the many lessons I’ve learned throughout my career is that it takes the power of corporate support to bring about major change. There would not have been a Virginia Slims Tour in 1970 without businesswoman and magazine publisher Gladys Heldman and corporate support of Joe Cullman III from Philip Morris.

The current lack of progress for women and people of color in corporations frustrates me and led me, my partner—Ilana Kloss—and a team of people to start the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative (BJKLI). We believe everyone, regardless of race, gender, religion, ability, or sexual orientation, should have equal rights, opportunity, and access. We work with corporations and people in positions of power to ignite change in pay equity and leadership culture through advocacy and access work.

Our pillars—LISTEN, LEARN, and LEAD—continuously guide our work. As an example of our LISTEN pillar, we recently supported research by Girls Leadership that explored the many structural and systematic ways young Black and Brown women are prevented from reaching leadership roles in our country, despite the fact that these girls identify as leaders from a very young age.

Melinda: The United States is in the middle of an important and long overdue conversation about systemic racism in our country. How is that impacting your work?

Billie Jean: We are at what Malcolm Gladwell calls a “tipping point.” This struggle has been going on since 1619, and while we may have paid attention to it, we have not dealt with it as a nation. We need to do that now. We need to change ourselves and change history.
We need to change ourselves and change history.
As an athlete, I’ve always believed that sport is a microcosm of society. From day one at BJKLI, we channeled that same mentality and determination to encourage our corporate partners to step up and make change. We work with so many amazing organizations like Jopwell (a diversity hiring startup) and others that have so many talented Black and Latinx people who are open to corporate opportunities. There is no excuse for organizations to be made up of one majority. We must drive diversity and support inclusion. It is good business.

Melinda: From the U.S. women’s soccer team and their quest for equal pay to WNBA player Maya Moore and her quest to free an innocent man from prison, we have seen one example after another of women athletes taking important stands for social progress. How does it make you feel to see the next generation of athletes use their platforms for causes like these? Do you think these women are getting the attention they’re due?

Billie Jean: Sport is so deeply connected to our society that we have to always speak up for injustice and use our platforms for social change.

Fifty years ago this year, nine women, known as the “Original 9,” signed $1 contracts with Gladys Heldman, then the publisher of World Tennis Magazine, and that is the birth of women’s professional tennis as we know it today. Women’s professional tennis is the leader in women’s sports. Without the sacrifices we faced and the barriers we overcame, we would not have women making millions of dollars for winning the U.S. Open or Wimbledon, and we would not have equal prize money at the four major tournaments on today’s tennis schedule.
A fan holds up a sign that says "Equal Play Equal Pay" in support of the United States Women's National Team fight for equal pay.
Photo by Icon Sportswire | Getty Images
The Original 9 knew the nine of us would not be the real beneficiaries of our actions. We had a vision for the future that any woman in the world, if she were good enough, would have a chance to compete, to be recognized for her accomplishments and not just her looks, and to be able to make a living playing professional tennis. Today, the same challenges are being faced by women athletes around the globe. From soccer to hockey to basketball and beyond, these women are still fighting for equal pay, equal access, and equal opportunities. All genders need to invest more in women’s sports to bring about growth. They deserve more. They deserve better. They deserve our respect, our support, and our investment.

Melinda: Last question for you: The pandemic is impacting all of us differently, but no one is untouched. Tell us what you’ve been doing lately to buoy your spirits. Where do you find optimism in these difficult times?

Billie Jean: Ilana and I returned home from a trip to Australia in early March and have barely left the house since. We miss our friends and our colleagues; however, I am proud to say we have become more experienced at virtual video platforms than I would have ever anticipated!

Your health is truly your wealth, and at 76 years of age, I am in that “compromised” group, and I need to look out for myself and those around me. We have been able to get out for short walks, and we have a weekly video chat with friends. We also have shown our support for frontline workers by “making some noise” every night at 7 p.m. Frankly, I am disappointed that the number of people in our neighborhood who support the frontline workers each night has declined. These people are putting their lives on the line each and every day for us, and we need to let them know we are there for them.

I am inspired by #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the protests, and those standing up for justice in our society. These movements look like America, and that is a positive step. The mobilization of people and sharing of information has been incredible, and change is in the air. As the late John Lewis wrote, “When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression, and war.”