Billie Jean King is best known for her 1973 exhibition tennis match against 55 year old Bobby Riggs. King was not the first woman to play against a man (she was the second behind Margaret Court. Court, the #1 in women’s tennis at the time, also played Riggs earlier in 1973), but King was the first to defeat a man in tennis. People took a number of different angles on the match’s significance, but it was clear that during the height of the 70s feminist movement, King’s victory was an important mark for women.
Tennis was historically an elitist’s sport that was slow to invite women or minorities onto the court. Even more difficult was the fact that tennis was also a rich man’s game, where matches were between upper class amateurs rather than working-class paid athletes. Throughout her entire youth, Billie Jean King faced discrimination as a member of the middle/lower class in California and especially as a woman. In 1954, Billie Jean King was barred from being photographed with all of her fellow competitors when she participated in a junior tournament with because she was wearing a blouse and shorts handmade by her mother. According to Susan Ware in her book Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports, the head of the Southern California Tennis Association, Perry Jones, opposed women playing tennis as “girl wear dresses.” King faced a constant lack of support from the male-dominated tennis industry. That’s why her victory over Bobby Riggs in 1973 meant so much to her and the women’s movement – she proved that all the treatment she faced as a child and young adult was based on false ideologies enabled by ignorance. She helped the game of tennis and women worldwide prove their power and equivalence.
King is not the first female to defeat a male in the competitive sports arena, and especially not in a sport with a deep aristocratic background surrounding the sport. During the early twentieth century, golf was not only a rich man’s game but another example of the amateur ideal. The oldest golfing championship in the US is the U.S. Amateur – before the US Open, the Masters, or any other tournament. The original “Grand Slam” in golf consisted of the US Open, the British Open, the British Amateur, and the US Amateur – before the PGA Championship and the Masters existed. One of the greatest golfers of all time, Bobby Jones, competed his entire career as an amateur and is the only person to win all four golf majors in a single year. Women, however, weren’t always welcome on the golf course.
While women had their own tour dating back to the late 19th century, the number of women playing golf was scarce. The first ever woman to play against a man, however, came significantly before Billie Jean King’s historic victory, and very few people even noticed it. In 1938, Babe Zaharias qualified for the Los Angeles Open. Although she did not do as well as she hoped, she later qualified in 1945 and actually made the 36-hole cut. She missed the 54-hole cut after the third day, but she still beat over half the field of men playing and went to play in three more PGA tournaments that year. Zaharias also applied to compete in the US Open, but the USGA denied her application citing it was for men only.
Zaharias was no novice when it came to competing in sports however. She won 2 gold medals and a silver medal in the 1932 Olympics in track and field. In college, she was an All-American basketball player and also played softball. According to the LA Times, she was an expert roller skater, diver, tennis player, and bowler, and she also pitched in three MLB spring training games in 1934, giving up three runs over four innings pitched. In an era where women just recently received the right to vote, Zaharias challenged the idea of femininity like no one else. It’s strange, however, that as someone who consistently defeated men in competition, she received little recognition as someone who significantly furthered women’s equality. As a matter of fact, Zaharias was the only woman to compete against men in golf for nearly 70 years, when Annika Sorenstam was invited to play in the 2003 Colonial on the PGA Tour. Only two other women have played in PGA tour events since Sorenstam. Perhaps Zaharias’ humble and quiet character are why Billie Jean King is credited as the first and most notorious female athlete to defeat a male. Zaharias’ career(s) indirectly laid the ground for women like Billie Jean King or NASCAR’s Sara Christian or boxing’s Jackie Tonawanda to prove themselves against men and society’s judgement.