Pride Month is upon us, which means it’s also time for Levity & Justice For ALL, a comedy benefit for LPAC, the only national lesbian political action organization. The event brings together pro-equality leaders, comedic talent, and rising stars to raise critically needed funds. The fundraising efforts will go toward supporting 2018 midterm election candidates who are endorsed by LPAC because they champion women’s rights and LGBTQ equality, as well as racial justice.
Every year the event honors a true Champion of Change who embodies the values of the organization and the change LPAC wants to see in the world. This year, the event will celebrate Billie Jean King, equality activist and tennis legend.
King is, without question, one of the most accomplished and well-known athletes and lesbian and Feminist icons. Most people know that she beat the abhorrent Bobby Riggs literally at his own game, especially after the film, Battle of the Sexes shed glorious light on the famed battle. But what you might not know is just how prolific King was throughout her career and how she used her power, skill, and fame to make strides for women in tennis, specifically, as well as in sports and life in general.
King won twenty Wimbledon titles, a record, including the singles in 1966, 1967, 1968, 1972, 1973, and 1975. She won thirteen US titles (four of which were singles), four French titles (one of which was singles), and two Australian titles (one of which was singles). She’s defeated the best of the best, including Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, and Margaret Court.
In a Seventeen Magazine reader poll in 1975, King was revealed as the most admired woman in the world. The runner up? Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister until 1974. King won thirty-nine Grand Slam titles. She represented the US in the Federation Cup and the Wightman Cup a number of times. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987. The USTA National Tennis Center was renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in 2006.
It certainly wouldn’t be a stretch to call her one of the greatest tennis players of all time. It also wouldn’t be a stretch to call her one of the most stellar activists.
In 1990, Life Magazine named her one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.” Only four of the hundred were athletes: Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Muhammad Ali were also on the list. She was the only female athlete on the list. And, in 2009, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work fighting for both women’s rights and the rights of those in the LGBTQ community.
It was King’s own story that inspired her social justice work after having been publicly and painfully outed in 1981. Sadly, it wasn’t until she was fifty-one that King truly became comfortable with being a lesbian, with years of therapy to thank for getting her to that point. King says being true to yourself is vital, a lesson her mother instilled in her when she was a little girl.
King wants the world to be a safe, welcoming place for girls and women and a place where being gay is never something to be ashamed of. To that end, King founded the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative (BJKLI). Billie Jean King is a force of nature to be sure.
And now, we salute eleven remarkable firsts accomplished by the woman who has changed tennis and saved lives, Billie Jean King.
- She was the first female athlete to earn more than $100,000 in prize money in a single season in 1971. Money may not be everything. But it certainly is a sign of how you stack up against others in your field. This mark proved that King had finally made her mark in the big dollar world of professional tennis.
- She was the first woman to be chosen Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsperson of the Year.” The award is given to the “athlete or team whose performance that year most embodies the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement.” Only four tennis players and nine individual female players have ever won.
- She was the first woman to beat Bobby Riggs, the former No. 1 ranked player and self-proclaimed male chauvinist. Riggs challenged her to the game, sure he would win and prove “male superiority.” Nothing was sweeter than his loss, not only to King but to women across the world.
- She was the first woman to attempt capturing the women’s doubles title at Wimbledon (with Karen Hantze Susman). It was 1962 and King and Susman succeeded with flying colors. It was a double whammy with both the attempt and the win as notches in the players’ belts.
- She was first woman to serve as the president of the Women’s Tennis Association. The WTA was founded at a meeting organized by Billie Jean King, a week before the 1973 Wimbledon Championships. King knew if women wanted to run the show, they needed an organized force behind the mission.
- She was the first in the world in tennis for five years. That’s the thing about Billie Jean King, she knew that once simply wasn’t enough. Nothing cements being on top than going five years strong.
- She was the first to found and head up a women’s tour. It was 1970, and it was called The Virginia Slims Circuit. The nine players, nicknamed the “Original 9,” became the basis for the Women’s Tennis Association Tour and gained notoriety for rebelling against the USTA for offering much larger prize amounts to male players.
- She was the first Women’s Sports Foundation founder. The WSF is an organization dedicated to promoting and enhancing athletic opportunities for women. King was a strong believer in creating opportunities for women by joining them together for a singular purpose.
- She was the first to threaten to boycott the US Open unless women were given the same amount in prize money as men. She could have ended up on the sidelines and many people thought she would, but King played and won and the US Open was never able to return to its discriminatory ways.
- She was the first to start a women’s sports magazine. The magazine was called, what else, Women’s Sports Magazine. She founded it in 1974 to fill a gap, something King was becoming very well known for.
- She was the first to found a co-ed tennis team, the Philadelphia Freedoms in 1974. King and the Philadelphia Freedoms were the inspiration for the Elton John song “Philadelphia Freedom.”