Not all readers of the Contrarian are aware that I have been known to play a game of tennis. I have defeated many of my peers and even, like Billy Jean King, defeated men, some of whom did not take the loss well. Unlike Billy Jean and her celebrity feminist fans, however, I did not make a big deal out of it for the next 35 years. In her recent book, Pressure is a Privilege: Lessons I’ve Learned from Life and the Battle of the Sexes, she is still swinging away.
Billy Jean’s vaunted “Battle of the Sexes” took place in the Houston Astrodome on September 20, 1973, during the administration of Richard Nixon. She was 29 at the time, and at the height of her powers, winner of multiple Wimbledon and U.S. Open championships. Her opponent, Bobby Riggs, was a former number-one player in the world – in 1946 and 1947. He was 26 years older than Billy Jean and born in 1918, the same year as her father.
Earlier that year, Riggs had defeated Margaret Court, a Grand Slam winner, but Billy Jean beat him in straight sets. She knew he was out of shape, so she ran him all over the court. A female professional in her prime defeats a washed-up male old enough to be her father. Billy Jean explains the significance.
The women’s movement was at its peak, she writes, and it was all very symbolic. Riggs helpfully billed himself as a male chauvinist pig and his entourage included women known as his “bosom buddies.” Feminists trumpeted Billy Jean’s victory as their own, as though she had defeated Jimmy Connors or Arthur Ashe. There was also something else going on, the real battle of the sexes.
Billy Jean King enjoyed considerable success before Title IX was passed in 1972, but she was an eager promoter of the measure. “The legislators knew how absolutely imperative it was to have equal rights in education for all boys and girls, and so they persisted in trying to institute change. Passing Title IX was the correct action in 1972 and it is worth fighting for today.” It was important for her to beat Bobby Riggs because, “I didn’t want anything to happen that would weaken the support for Title IX we had already fought so hard to win.”
Further, she writes, “I hated the idea of the match being a ‘battle.’ I always want men and women to work together, not battle against each other.” Yet, Pressure is a Privilege gives no clue that, in 35 years, Billy Jean has ever considered that Title IX might have any negative consequences. As Jessica Gavora outlined in Tilting the Playing Field, there is no dispute that Title IX has been harmful to men. Its proportionality requirement has led to the elimination of entire men’s teams, some very illustrious. As Susan Pinker noted in The Sexual Paradox, Title IX also created “absurd situations where allowances for pregnancy or all-male soccer teams suddenly became discriminatory practices.”
No matter, for Billy Jean King and professional feminists, criticism of Title IX is out of bounds. She appears to give the statute, and by extension, government, credit for women’s athletic successes. That is hardly the case.
Pressure is a Privilege mentions Althea Gibson, winner of 11 major tennis titles in the late 1950s, including the French Open in 1956, Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, and the U.S. Open those same years. Althea did all that without Title IX, and as an African-American, against greater opposition than Billy Jean King ever faced. There was no professional women’s tennis circuit then but Althea earned $100,000 in one year by staging matches before the Harlem Globetrotters’ basketball games, all without help from the government. She also played professional golf.
Billy Jean King writes that tennis champions, “pay attention to detail,” such as the direction and strength of wind, the sun, the time of day. Good advice, but she could certainly do with more detail about the negative consequences of Title IX, which should be overhauled or scrapped. In the meantime, here is Billy Jean’s observation about the man she defeated 35 years ago.
“Some people might find it strange for me to say but Bobby Riggs is really a good role model. He acted like a true gentleman when the match was done, he behaved with integrity, and he was a great sport. Not to mention, he always had fun, was optimistic, and always kept his word.”