Billie Jean King: Still fighting for equality

Billie Jean King sat on a stage in front of a rapt crowd of nearly 1,000 people, talking about how she has spent most of her life on the outside looking in, fighting for equality and railing against injustice.

At the Fairfield Community Foundation’s Fund for Women and Girls annual luncheon in Greenwich on April 5, where she was the keynote speaker, she reflected on her trailblazing career and inspired the audience with her reflections while considering the future. Her presence was especially fitting given the event’s theme, Courage to Create Change. Famed tennis player, King, 74, who won a record 39 Grand Slams, has been advocating for equality both on and off the tennis court. The luncheon raised over $700,000 for the foundation’s Family Economic Security Program.

Billie Jean King

King got her start in tennis around age 10 and soon experienced injustice when playing in a tournament at the Los Angeles Tennis Club in 1955. Wearing white tennis shorts her mother made instead of the typical tennis dress girls wore, Billie Jean was kept out of a group picture of junior tennis players. Later, she fought against the pay disparity in prize money for men and women tennis players as one of the “Original 9,” a group of women tennis players that signed a $1 contract for play in the newly created Virginia Slims series, leading to the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).

She got laughs from the crowd during while sharing how she was introduced to tennis when she was already playing basketball, softball and track and field. “I said, ‘What’s tennis? What do you have to do?’ She said, ‘You have to run, jump and hit a ball.’ I said those are my three most favorite things in the world.”

On a more serious note, she told the audience of mostly women about the challenges she faced in her career, such as starting with Virginia Slims.

“We didn’t know what would happen, we were going into an unknown. I just said to them (the other members of the 9), ‘If you are going to do it for the money don’t do it, if you are going to do it for the applause, don’t do it. But we are going to do it for the future generations.’ So our goal was always, and has continued to be, the WTA goal…any girl born in the world will have a place to compete.”

Instead of a traditional keynote speech at a podium, Billie Jean sat in chair on the stage and had a conversation with the foundation’s director and CEO Juanita T. James.

When asked about the Battle of the Sexes tennis match in 1973 being more about social change than just a tennis match, Billie Jean said not a day has gone by since the game where someone has not mentioned it to her.

“Women come up to me and they tell me it gave them more self confidence and empowerment. They believe in themselves and for the first time the girls are taught not to ask for what we want and need. That match taught them they can ask for what they want and need like a raise for instance,” she said. “Men come up to me and are are much quieter, more reflective and often they have tears in their eyes,” she said, adding that they often tell her how it changed their lives especially when they had a daughter of their own.

Talking about the foundation’s work for women and girls, King talked about why she was here at the luncheon. “Well, we are so underserved. Women are. Girls are. I used to go to (Andre) Agassi’s fundraisers in Las Vegas for the school of his and he always had a sugar daddy (for fundraising) there. And he always told Andre whatever you raise, I’ll double it.” Pausing dramatically, King said, “That never happens for women ever. Never happens in women’s sports. It happened every year for Andre. Men give to men. And women give to men.”

“My life has always been on the outside looking in. I’d see the guys over there, the former players helping the players coming up,” she said noting that she remembers tennis great Billy Talbert from Ohio, he’d help guy players, including Clark Graebner who after quitting amateur tennis, got a million dollar job.

Billie Jean King speaking with luncheon attendees.

“Why did that happen? Because Billy Talbert got him a job. You usually get your first job because of connections. Girls do not get that kind of help as much as the guys.”

“When you help a young girl or a women, you change the world in so many ways because she is the one that usually raises the children, not always but usually. If you are a single mother by getting less by her receiving less in salary, it just makes the world poorer in every way, not just financially but in our soles. No one wants to be a second class citizen. And I’m a white girl and I felt that! Can you imagine what my sisters in color feel or maybe people with a disability, you cannot imagine.. Empathy is a really important word.”

Talking about her own journey, Billie Jean said it took her a long time to get comfortable in her own skin, dealing with an eating disorder and being gay. “I’ve had 25 years of therapy, can you tell?” she said, getting a good laugh from the crowd. She shared how her parents had a hard time understanding when she came out and she realized that because it took her a long time to come to terms with it, she needed to give them time too.

Billie Jean King shot tennis balls into the crowd at the end of her speech.

“If you are the parent of a LGBTQ child, you really are important to them and you just say you love them and that’s it and you move on. I love you, that’s all you have to say,” she said.

In the earlier press conference, she also talked about inclusion, freedom and the women’s movement. “Every generation has to basically start over..and keep fighting for it. I always think of equality as freedom. Freedom is one of my favorite words in the world, for a lot of different reasons.”

Asked by this reporter what advice she would give to a 13-year old girl today, King said, “I’d talk about how girls are taught to be perfect and boys are taught to be brave and they are both wrong. No one is brave all the time and no one is ever perfect. And girls, we never think we are good enough and we have got to stop it. We are great the way we are. That’s what I would tell her that she can be anything she wants.”

When asked what she considers her biggest legacy, King said. “I don’t think about it. I mean because I’m still going like a bandit, I haven’t stopped and maybe others will decide what that [legacy] is. What stands out to me is I am not finished yet.”