Billie Jean King: Breaking barriers on and off the court

Billie Jean King has been breaking down barriers for more than 50 years. Named one of Life magazine’s “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century,” she is as famous for fighting for equality from social injustice as for her tennis career.

On Thursday, April 5, Fairfield County’s Community Foundation’s Fund for Women & Girls celebrates its 20th anniversary of making a difference for women and girls throughout Fairfield County. The annual luncheon at the Hyatt Regency in Greenwich, a sold-out affair, features King as its keynote speaker.

“Fairfield County’s Community Foundation’s Fund for Women & Girls is honored that Billie Jean King will be joining us at our 20th anniversary celebration. She is the quintessential figure who has challenged not only herself, but also all of society throughout the course of her life and continues to do so. The impact she has made for women as a catalyst for change is a model for the important work that has already been accomplished by the Fund for Women & Girls and its plans for future endeavors in our community that the fund is determined to achieve,” said Juanita James, president and CEO of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation.

Born in Long Beach, Calif., in 1943, Billie Jean first picked up a tennis racquet at age 12 and quickly got her first taste of 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.

Decades later, she tirelessly championed for equal pay for women athletes. Although she was well-paid among female athletes, becoming the first to make more than $100,000 in prize money in 1971, male tennis players consistently earned more. When she won the U.S. Open title in 1972, she earned $15,000 less than her male counterpart, Ilie Năstase.

Amid a growing women’s movement, Billie Jean leveraged her number one standing in the tennis world to advocate for equal pay. Signing a $1 contract in 1970 to join the Virginia Slims Circuit as a move against the pay disparity in prize money for men versus women, she was one of the “Original 9,” a group of women players that formed the Women’s Tennis Association.

“Part of leaving a worthy legacy is recognizing your role as just another link in the chain of life,” King wrote in her 2008 book, Pressure Is a Privilege: Lessons I’ve Learned from Life and the Battle of the Sexes. “Each of us has the ability to help lift up the next generation … encouraging young people to achieve more than we have.”

King’s arguably most famous moment came at age 29 in 1973 when she and the 55-year-old Bobby Riggs, a former Wimbledon champion and rampant chauvinist, played against each other in what was dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes” after he challenged her, saying women’s tennis was not on the same level as men’s tennis. She handily defeated him in three sets. That televised match, seen by some 90 million people around the world, was a watershed moment in women’s tennis receiving public respect and getting it to be seen as a profession. It was also the subject of a movie in 2017.

Her tennis legacy remains formidable. King was ranked the No. 1 women’s player in the world six times and won 39 Grand Slam titles. Her legacy in equality is just as distinguished. After being publicly “outed” as a lesbian in 1981, she has gone on to champion LGBT rights and equality.

She founded World TeamTennis, a co-ed professional sports league, in 1974, and launched the Women’s Sports Foundation. In 2014, she created the Billie Jean Leadership Initiative, a non-profit devoted to working on issues necessary to achieve diverse and inclusive leadership in the workplace. She owns the Philadelphia Freedoms tennis team and also serves on the executive boards of the Women’s Sports Foundation and the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

The Fairfield County Community Community Foundation’s luncheon over the years has raised more than $5 million that has funded sustainable solutions leading to economically secure and healthy women and girls throughout Fairfield County. Net proceeds from this year’s luncheon will support the Family Economic Security Program at Housatonic Community College, ensuring that 400 low-income students, over a four-year period, persist, graduate and move into family-sustaining employment.

For more information about the foundation, visit fccfoundation.org.

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