When Tennis Was King: An Interview With Historian Susan Ware

September 20, 2013, 11:47 am

gamesetmatchToday is the fortieth anniversary of the Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean King’s legendary 1973 victory at the Astrodome over former tennis champion-turned-hustler Bobby Riggs. In Game, Set Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports (University of North Carolina, 2011), Susan Ware, biographer and women’s historian, used the match to tell a bigger story about the role of feminism in sports and the role of sports in popularizing feminist ideals about women’s equality. Here’s a segment she did on MSNBC’s Up with Steve Kornacki on Sunday, September 15.

Susan and I had the opportunity to see the women’s semi-final matches at the U.S. Open this year. At this prestigious tournament,  women’s prize money has been equal for almost four decades because of King’s leadership in women’s professional tennis, and her insistence that women would not compete unless they received equal pay for equal work. Perhaps one of the best moments of the day was during the Serena Williams and Li Na match: Billie Jean went up on the Jumbotron, and received a lengthy, noisy standing ovation from the entire stadium.

Susan has written about the match, and rumors that Riggs threw the match to pay off a gambling  debt, on the University of North Carolina Press blog. What follows is a short interview we did about the significance of this day in women’s, and American, history.

TR: Susan, both of us watched the Battle of the Sexes on television: I was a teenager, and you would have been in graduate school. I remember feeling, as a high school athlete not yet introduced to feminism, that so much was riding on Billie Jean King winning the match. I was incredibly anxious, and when Bobby Riggs leaped over the net to congratulate her, I wanted him to fall! Can you describe your memories of the match, and what role experiencing this recent history played when you sat down to research and write the book?

SW: My memories of the match are very much linked to being in graduate school, specifically in the Harvard history department where I was studying women’s history despite the general misogyny all around me (as in, a professor who only called me Mrs. Ware).  So the stakes seemed especially high.  I was so tense that I didn’t even let myself contemplate victory until Riggs netted the final shot.  And then, there was a delicious mix of elation and relief.  Oddly, when I recently watched a tape of the match, I was just as nervous, even though I knew the outcome.   There was never any question that the Battle of the Sexes would be where I started my book.

TR: Game, Set Match is a story about popular feminism and sports in the 1970s, but it is also about the national political battle to enact and interpret Title IX. These two stories come together in the person of one activist, Billie Jean King, who you call “the thread that ties the narrative together.” Given your longstanding commitment to biography as a genre, what held you back from focusing entirely on King and the revolution she sparked in women’s tennis?

SW: As a biographer I am drawn to subjects whose life stories open a window on their times, but the balance between the life and the times can vary.   In Billie Jean King’s case, I felt the need to include the history of Title IX and popular feminism in order to explain why she was so much more than just a tennis player.  In fact, I would argue that this approach allowed me to establish her larger historical significance in a way that would not have been possible in a traditional biography.  I am still mulling over whether this is a problem specific to sports biographies.

TR: Come to think of it, given how much a general audience it might draw, there isn’t much scholarly sports history – or sports biography – but you have made a convincing argument for its importance to political history. Is there a problem here? Or is Billie Jean King uniquely significant to women’s history?  

SW: The fields of sports history and sports biography are fairly traditional in their subjects (generally men and male sports) and their approach.  Instead I drew on feminist biography and my interest in the history of feminism to tell Billie Jean King’s story, just as I did for my earlier biography of Amelia Earhart.  I like to think that these books, which combine a biographical approach with engagement in larger questions of women’s lives and the fortunes of feminism, can be a model for a range of historical explorations, not just women’s history.

TR: You got to interview Billie Jean King for the book – what was the most unexpected thing you learned from her? And as a fellow traveler in recent history, I’m curious about whether you had concerns about what she would ultimately think of the book? Unlike social scientists, we aren’t trained to write about people who are alive.

SW: Billie Jean King has been interviewed so many times that she has her answers down pat, and I certainly got no smoking guns or startling revelations from her, although I did love her quote about feminists “thinking from the neck up.”  The main thing I gleaned from the interview was how much she still loved — indeed needed – the limelight.   I sent her a copy of the book and would of course have loved a positive response, but I never heard a word.  I’m okay with that, because she isn’t really my audience. To my mind, a work of serious historical scholarship is the best way to ensure her place in history and I feel that I accomplished that goal.

TR: Two last questions Susan. Title IX was enormously important to me – by the time I got to college all the sports I played had been elevated from “club” to Varsity status, with plush training facilities, to meet federal requirements that women’s sports have equivalent budgets, and equivalent facilities, to those enjoyed by male athletes. First, what has Title IX meant to you? And second, as other protections earned by feminists and civil rights activists fall, do you think supporters of Title IX will have to be ready to defend it?

SW: I graduated from college the same year Title IX was passed so I never had the opportunity to play organized sports, which I regret. Luckily, influenced in part by Billie Jean King, I discovered tennis and running in the 1970s and physical activity has been an important part of my life ever since. Looking forward, I think that persistent vigilance is definitely called for to protect the remarkable gains that have occurred since the 1970s. If we’re not paying attention, it’s just too easy for the sports world to default back to privileging men. That’s why Title IX is still so important forty years after it was passed.

In closing, here’s a portion of an ESPN special that gives you a flavor of the match itself, its importance to feminists, the hoopla that was generated around the event by Riggs, and Billie Jean King’s enormous presence of mind throughout:


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