Tennis Legend Billie Jean King Speaks on Sexism at CMC Athenaeum

At the conclusion of Billie Jean King’s talk at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, speakers blasted “Philadelphia Freedom,” a song Elton John wrote for her, as she lobbed autographed tennis balls out to the audience. The entire crowd—which filled the Athenaeum to its maximum capacity—was on their feet cheering as King left the stage. 

“It was definitely the first time we’ve ever had flying objects at the Athenaeum,” Athenaeum fellow Ben Tillotson CM ’15 said.

Fuzzy yellow projectiles aside, King, a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, delivered a talk at the Athenaeum on Monday, April 7 that addressed a serious theme: equality in athletics. 

The athlete is famous
for winning a total of 39 Grand Slams; founding the Women’s Tennis
Association (WTA), World Team Tennis, and the Women’s Sports Foundation; and beating
Bobby Riggs in the televised 1973 “Battle
of the Sexes” match. Along with her activism for women’s equality in sports,
King is also a figurehead for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights as the first publicly gay female
professional sports player. In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama awarded her the
Presidential Medal of Freedom and appointed her to represent the United States
at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Snortum, the director of the Athenaeum, organized King’s visit to Claremont.

“I have been working for years,
along with the [Claremont-Mudd-Scripps] athletic department, to bring Billie Jean King to Claremont,” Snortum said. “Jodie Burton, head golf coach and associate athletic director, has always been
fascinated by her courage, strength, and willingness to risk. She is an important spokesperson on the relationship between sports and sexual
orientation, and is an inspiration for out athletes.” 

athletics would not be where it is today without her,” Burton said. 

The presentation began with a video
montage highlighting King’s accomplishments and accolades both on and off the
court. Then, King appeared on stage before an exuberant crowd.

“This is really
fun for me,” King said to the audience. “You have no idea.”

King began by acknowledging all the members of the athletic department present, especially
tennis coach Gretchen Rush, who was once ranked 13th in the world
and played against King in the past.

King’s talk touched on tennis, problem-solving, her fight for equality, the importance of having heroes and “sheroes” in one’s life, and the importance of being a team player. 

Despite the limitations placed on her gender, King fought her way to play all sports, including football. But following her first tennis lesson as a young girl, she decided that was going to be No. 1. Soon after committing herself to
the sport, however, she noticed a lack of racial diversity among tennis players, and at age 12, she determined that her life on the
court would have to come second to a push for equality.  

After playing for a long time in
exhibition matches that garnered extremely low pay for female tennis players,
King fought to develop a women’s professional league. Eventually, King and nine other
women garnered a sponsorship from Virginia Slims, signed a $1 contract, and
founded the WTA. 

“We wanted any girl to have a place to compete, be
recognized, and be able to make a living,” King said at the talk. 

King also strongly advocated for
Title IX and worked with officials, congressmen, and fellow athletes to get the
bill passed. When she competed against Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” match, she knew how great of an impact the results would have on the bill. 

“You can’t discriminate against either boys or girls, but girls were
really so far behind,” King said. “I wanted to beat Bobby so badly to support Title IX. But
I won the match because I respected him.”

The development of World Team Tennis, a coed professional tennis league founded in 1973, was
another one of King’s accomplishments. She wanted to create an atmosphere
in which athletes of both sexes could work together in a team

King defined a superstar as someone who works to highlight the best in his or her team. 

“Success in life is not a he thing, a she thing,
definitely not a me thing, but a we thing,” she said. 

Reflecting on her experience as a representative of the United States in Sochi in February, King discussed how appalling the treatment of
LGBT people was. She said she is reaching out to help gay youths that she met on
her trip.

“The LGBT community is important to me, but working against hate is
most important,” King said. “My dream is for everyone to be their unique self 100 percent of the day. What gives me hope is that LGBT and women’s issues
are the issues of the 21st century. We need equal opportunities and
rights for every issue across the board.”

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