Film & Television

Battle of the Sexes: We’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe

According to last year’s report released by the Senate Joint Economic Committee, women still earn just 79 cents for every dollar a man earns, and our median annual incomes are $10,800 less than men’s.

As unfair as these numbers may sound to feminists today, they would have been miraculously good news back in the early 1970s, when even in the rarified world of professional sports, the difference between salaries and prize money for women and men were much further apart.

In one of the earliest scenes of the crowdpleasing new movie Battle of the Sexes, young Billie Jean King has recently won the U.S. Open women’s singles championship, effectively making her the world’s number one female player. As her victory is being celebrated, the head of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (now, just the USTA), a retired pro named Jack Kramer, announces the prizes for an upcoming tournament. The men’s winners will take home $12,000. The women’s, $1,500. This is untenable to King and with her friend, World Tennis magazine founder Gladys Heldman, she storms a men’s club to confront Kramer.

If you’re a contemporary women’s soccer fan, his argument will sound eerily familiar. “Men are more exciting to watch. They’re faster. And they’re stronger. And they’re more competitive. It’s not your fault. It’s just biology.”

King and Heldman walk away — from the club and from the professional tennis establishment. Together with a half dozen other ranked players, they found the Women’s Tennis Association, and get themselves kicked out of the USLTA for doing so. Heldman lines up Virginia Slims (“You’ve come a long way, baby!”) as the sponsor and the women become minor media darlings.

Meanwhile, three-time World Champion Bobby Riggs is not handling retirement well. At age 55, he is a compulsive gambler, desperate to be back in the spotlight. He challenges King, calling her motel room at midnight with his big idea. “You and me, Billie Jean. Three sets, five sets, your choice … How about this: male chauvinist pig versus hairy legged feminist. No offense.” When he asks her, “You’re still a feminist, right?” Her answer is perfect.

“No, I’m a tennis player who happens to be a woman.”

King turns Riggs down and he sets up a match with her rival Australian player Margaret Court. If you don’t remember how that turned out, be advised that it became known as “The Mother’s Day Massacre.” King realizes that the fate of the Women’s Tennis Association and the future of female players rests on the credibility of women in the sport. So she agrees to play Riggs in what became one of the greatest media circuses of all time. Riggs presents King with a giant “Sugar Daddy” lollipop. King hands him a baby pig. A $100,000 purse is offered to the winner. ABC broadcasts the Houston Astrodome event and 90 million people — presumably of both genders — watch it live.

And, the very happy ending (this is history and therefore not a spoiler): after an initial upset, King soundly beats Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

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