On September 20, 1973, Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in a nationally televised match viewed by 90 million people around the world. King’s defeat of Riggs, who had provocatively opined about the inherent inferiority of women’s tennis, was a milestone for the women’s liberation movement.
In 1973, the retired 55-year-old former tennis star Bobby Riggs summoned up his inner male chauvinist by claiming that he could beat the best female tennis player, Billie Jean King. In his day, Riggs was a world champion player, with multiple Wimbledon, U.S. Open, and French Open wins under his belt, but he was also a known hustler and gambler. He claimed that he even made money betting on his own matches. A known feminist (Riggs called her the “women’s libber leader”), Billie Jean King initially declined the challenge and Riggs played Margaret Court instead. When Court lost to Riggs, King felt like it was her responsibility to the gender equality movement to defeat Riggs. At the time, Title IX had just been enacted and women still needed a man’s signature to secure a credit card. King explained years later in an interview, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”
With a winner-take-all prize of $100,00, the match was held in the Houston Astrodome, with an audience of 30,000 including Glen Campbell and Salvador Dali. The atmosphere was carnival-like: King arrived a la Cleopatra held up by buff, toga-wearing members of Rice University’s track team, Riggs was dragged into the stadium on a rickshaw surrounded by scantily-clad women, and he handed King a pig before the match as a nod to his chauvinist pig reputation. Determined to prove both her own personal strength and all of womankind’s fortitude, King flew her racket into the air in celebration when she beat Bobby “No-Broad-Can-Beat-Me” Riggs.
When a man claimed in 2013 that he had evidence that Riggs threw the match to settle a mafia debt, King dismissed it as yet more evidence of male fragility, “A lot of people, men particularly, don’t like it if a woman wins. They don’t like it. They make up stories. They start just thinking about it more and more. It’s hard on them. It’s very hard on their egos.”
Emma Stone and Steve Carell are taking the eponymous match to the silver screen in their new movie, appropriately titled “Battle of the Sexes,” out September 22, 2017.