With Wimbledon fortnight underway, and equal prize money between men and women a given, it is worth looking back some 40 years at how women tennis players united to fight for and win equal pay. A new documentary – Battle of the Sexes – released in cinemas today, June 26, tells an entertaining story.
Writing in the Telegraph a couple of weeks ago, Sarah Crompton evokes that period well: “The contrasts are all there in strong saturated colours: the advertisements in which men call on their wives to iron their collars and starch their shirts in stark contrast to the glamorous Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem leading equal pay rallies; the interviews with a young (Billie Jean) King focused on the wellbeing of her husband, while demeaningly ignoring her prowess on the tennis court.”
The article goes on to relate how in 1970 Billie Jean King had been at the centre of a group of women who challenged the US Tennis Association and set up their own tour to promote women’s tennis. Uniting with other women players during Wimbledon in 1973 they went on to fight for and win equal pay, “a principle that still exists in tennis as in few other sports”. At a time when women were being accused of “getting uppity and demanding equal rights”, “King knew that the argument for equal pay had to be based on equal value. If women were as entertaining and popular as the men, they deserved to be paid the same”.
A couple of months after Wimbledon 1973 “31,000 crowded the Houston Astrodrome to watch a $100,000 winner-takes-all contest between Bobby Riggs [a 55 year old former tennis pro and triple Wimbledon winner] and Billie Jean King, the so-called Battle of the Sexes. A further 100 million followed every point on TV. With repeats, it remains the most viewed tennis match of all time”. King won, and “as a New York Times editorial later put it: ‘in a single tennis match, Billie Jean King was able to do more for the cause of women than most feminists can achieve in a lifetime’ “.