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Elliott: Billie Jean King on how Title IX went from near ‘accident’ to life-changing force

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Billie Jean King is photographed at The Langham Huntington in Pasadena on October 3, 2019. (Christina House/Los Angeles Times) (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Nowhere in the only sentence that includes Section IXa 1972 law that prohibits discrimination, denial of benefits, or exclusion based on sex in any educational program or activity that receives federal financial assistance, the word “sports” appears.

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The law, which has opened the playing field to millions of women, never specifically mentions its most famous application. It was the nuance in the phrase, the choice of words that was almost non-existent, that made Title IX synonymous with catastrophic change for female athletes.

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“In these 37 words there is the word “activity”. And because of this word, in fact, this is the only reason we have women’s sports today,” said the immortal tennis player and women’s rights activist. Billie Jean King.

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“And the reason everyone thinks it’s about women’s sports is because we’re so visible. You don’t look at the people sitting in the classroom.”

Talking on the phone while traveling to Washington to celebrate 50th Anniversary of Title IX while signing the bill, King recalled a conversation she had 15 years ago with the late Senator Birch Bay of Indiana, who is credited with leading Title IX through the Senate. being late Patsy Mink from Hawaii, the first woman of color to be elected to Congress, got it through the House of Representatives.

Bai, whose equality advocacy was inspired by his wife Marvella being denied admission to law school because of her gender, told King that the final wording of Title IX was almost accidental.

“He said that they almost did not write down the “activities” in the law. That they couldn’t decide. – Do we really need it? King said. “And then, as a ploy, they said, ‘Let’s just leave it. You never know “”.

Little did they know that it would change the lives of women who used to have to beg, borrow and improvise to play sports. “You don’t understand inclusion,” King said, “unless you’ve been excluded.”

Billie Jean King speaks about gender equality before the Senate Subcommittee on Education on Capitol Hill in November 1973.
Billie Jean King speaks about gender equality before the Senate Subcommittee on Education on Capitol Hill in November 1973. (Associated Press)

King grew up in Long Beach, whose main library now bears her name. She played tennis at UCLA, but there were no scholarships for female athletes, and she worked two jobs during her studies. Her husband Larry had a tennis scholarship. Like a couple of prominent local male players, Arthur Ash (UCLA) and Stan Smith (USC), whom she would see at Wimbledon after they played in the NCAA Tournament. She didn’t have that opportunity. Like most women of that time, she too could not get a credit card on her own.

Prize inequality in the open era of tennis that began in 1968 inspired King to advocate for change. For his victory at Wimbledon that year, King received 750 British pounds. Rod Laver got 2000. “Men controlled everything. Larry, my ex-husband, told me that they would try to get us out of tennis because all the money belongs to them,” King said. “So they started dropping tournaments and getting less and less in prize money.”

These snubs inspired a group of women to abandon the existing tennis authority in 1970 called the “Original Nine” and start their own tour. King’s star power, the skills of promoter Gladys Heldman, and the sponsorship of Philip Morris kept the tour alive until it caught on and flourished. Two years later, Section IX appeared and survived several attempts to soften it. A year after that, the Women’s Tennis Association was born. and King’s exhibition match “Battle of the Sexes” against a huckster Bobby Riggs.

He decisively defeated Margaret Court and was expected to do the same with King on national television. It was a carnival. But for King, who was brought to court at the Houston Astrodome on a stretcher carried by muscular, shirtless men, the event had deep implications.

“One of the reasons I was so desperate to win is because I wanted the IX title not to be weakened,” she said. “I knew it was about social change and I knew we were only in our third year of women’s professional tennis and we were very young, in infancy. And so I wanted to change the hearts and minds of the country to believe in Title IX, to believe that women deserve equality.”

Equal pay is now the norm at four Grand Slams, and Naomi Osaka as well as Serena Williams is one of the highest paid female athletes in the world. But they don’t earn as much as the highest paid male athletes, and women’s professional leagues remain an uncertain proposition. King, who has a financial interest in the Dodgers, is working with Dodgers controlling owner Mark Walter to explore the possibility of creating a women’s professional hockey league, but that is a long way off.

Billie Jean King returns during the Wimbledon fourth round match in 1968.
Billie Jean King returns during the Wimbledon fourth round match in 1968. (Associated Press)

Significant ripple effect Section IX opening of sports participation for women and the abolition of enrollment quotas was that it also opened doors outside of the locker room. A 2018 study by Ernst & Young found that 94% of women in senior positions were female athletes in the past. 52% played sports at the college level compared to 39% of women in other management positions. Women were no longer excluded from the old boy network that male athletes built and later used to grow professionally, created their own networks and absorbed knowledge that had previously been denied them.

“It’s not about being No. 1 or anything like that. It’s about learning about the culture that men have created through business and sports, and that helps women a lot,” King said. “Athletics and sports teach you to be resilient, they teach you to complete a project, they teach you to lead, they teach you to be a team player. … You learn that through sports, and that’s something that men have always had.”

Despite women’s progress under Title IX, King’s drive for equality is not yet complete.

“I think Title IX has helped suburban white girls the most, and for the next 50 years, we really need to focus on bringing in more and more girls of color,” she said. “We need to make sure we take care of girls with disabilities by developing this area. We have to help the LGBT community, especially trans athletes.”

She is concerned about attacks on gay rights such as Texas Republican Party platform calling gays “crazy”. She is concerned that states have recently passed laws restricting or banning abortion. “It’s pushed back, especially with abortion rights,” she said.

When she helped shape the WTA, she advised other players to always remember that they are in a precarious position because the pendulum of public opinion tends to swing from one extreme to the other. This applies today to any benefit derived from Title IX.

“You always have to work hard and be diligent and hyper-vigilant and pay attention because things do change,” she said. “I think everyone is focused on this because of this anniversary and they are starting to understand that this was not just a sporting event. It was really about education, class and equality.”

These 37 words changed the world. Equality belittles no one and uplifts all, a vital lesson that King passed on to all of us to live and fight for every day on the court, in the classroom and everywhere we go.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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