June 23rd marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the law that opened all educational programs -- including sports -- to women and girls in the United States. One of the tireless advocates for Title IX, both before and since its passage, is tennis legend Billie Jean King, winner of 20 Wimbledon titles, 13 U.S. Open titles, four French titles, and two in Australia between 1961 and 1979.
Though King retired from competitive play in 1990, her work never stops. She now works to expand team tennis co-ed programs for the United States Tennis Association. Life magazine named Billie Jean King one of the "100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century." In 2009 President Obama awarded her Medal of Freedom for her work advocating for equal rights. I was honored to interview her recently for my radio show Equal Time With Martha Burk.
MB: According to your bio you got your first tennis racquet at age 11, and you told your mother at that time you wanted to be a world champion. Were you psychic?
BJK: I said "I want," not "I'm going to be." I think as you get older you realize it's not that easy. There's a lot of fear involved sometime. But I knew if I was going to be in the game I wanted to be number one -- tennis could be a platform. Maybe I could change the sport to make it more inclusive, and help change the world. I promised myself I would dedicate my life to equal rights and opportunities for boys and girls.
MB: When you won the U.S. Open in 1972, you got $15 thousand less than the male champion. The next year you lobbied for and got equal pay for the women. Were other female players with you, or were they afraid to rock the boat?
BJK: There were a few women willing to rock the boat, and they chose me as leader on the issue. I went about it [with officials] very quietly, and the next year we got it. But it took a lot longer, until 2007, for all the other major tournaments to come on board. To have equal prize money in the majors really sends a strong message. It's not about the money, it's the message.
MB: You founded the Women's Tennis Association at about the same time Title IX was passed. You wrote last year in The Huffington Post that the law opened important doors, and you knew it was going to be a long haul to keep those doors open and that opportunity open.
BJK: A lot of athletes fought to get Title IX. We went before Congress to tell them why it was so important from a sports point of view, but also education, because it's really about education. Many people believe it's only sports, because sports is so visible.
MB: What about the famous "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match against Bobby Riggs in 1973?
BJK: I wanted to beat Bobby Riggs because it was one year after Title IX was passed. I wanted to change the hearts and minds of people. And as we know, to change hearts and minds to match the law isn't that easy. So I had to beat him for a lot of reasons. But it wasn't about a tennis match -- it was about social change.
MB: You also started the Women's Sports Foundation.
BJK: The reason I started the Women's Sports Foundation is that I wanted us to make sure that Title IX stayed strong. It was a new law, and a lot of people were not happy about it. People said it's a quota system. But it was really about overcoming a [different] quota system that had kept women out of educational programs like medical school and professional schools, as well as sports, for years.
MB: Where would you like to see women's sports 10 years from now?
BJK: We have to have professional opportunities for girls to dream. It's very difficult to come into the marketplace now, and we need women to support women's sports. They have to write the checks, and we need to get women's pay to be equal to help with that.
Follow Martha Burk on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MarthaBurk