Billie Jean King on double standards: “Girls are brought up to be perfect”

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Emily Reynolds
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In her episode of Desert Island Discs, tennis great Billie Jean King opened up about her experiences as a woman in sport – and more. 

Before there was the tennis powerhouse that is Serena Williams, there was Billie Jean King. She was the tennis world champion in the Sixties and Seventies, winning 39 Grand Slam titles – 12 in singles, 16 in women’s doubles and 11 in mixed doubles. 

Such feats were not easy – especially in an environment where women were denigrated. And, in her appearance this week on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, the American said she had become “furious” at not being allowed to play American football as a child.

“My mother was always worried about me being a lady at all times,” she said. “But what does that really mean?”. 

It was for this reason that King picked Aretha Franklin’s Respect as one of her eight music selections on the show. 

Billie Jean King

For many years, King was the best professional tennis player in the world

“It was in the Sixties. We were just beginning the women’s movement and this song, Respect – R-E-S-P-E-C-T – was so important… I think it made women stand up a little straighter, [and gave them] a little more self-confidence,” she said.

King has spoken on the subject before. In one interview, she stressed that “girls are taught to be perfect and boys to be brave”. “Both are wrong,” she said.

“Men don’t always have to be brave or fix everything,” she added. “As girls, we never think we’re good enough, and we have to stop this — we’re great the way we are. Women tend to get less, so when you help a young girl or woman, you change the world in so many ways.”

Desert Island Discs also provided other insights into King’s life. She was publicly outed in 1981 when her ex-husband sued her for palimony. 

“All the media was there, I walked in, Larry was there, my parents came up, they didn’t know what was happening, it was terrible… So I said, ‘I did have an affair with Marilyn Barnett’ and you could have heard a pin drop,” she said. 

“But it was probably in some ways a good thing I got outed, because when would I have ever come out? I don’t know.”

Billie Jean King Emma Stone Battle of the Sexes

King with Emma Stone, who played her in the 2017 film Battle of the Sexes

King has more recently been featured as the subject in the Emma Stone and Steve Carell film Battle of the Sexes, which depicted King’s struggle to be taken seriously as a woman in tennis, and her 1973 match against Bobby Riggs, a male player who insisted that a woman could never beat a man in the sport. The then 29-year-old won in three sets against Riggs.

She referenced the match – “a tiny sliver of my life” – on Desert Island Discs, selecting If I Dare by Sara Bareilles as one of her songs.

“When he [Riggs] jumped the net, he said ‘I underestimated you’. And I think that’s what a lot of people feel about women and people of colour.”

“Don’t underestimate anybody ever, ever – my dad taught us that,” she concluded. “Always respect your opponent, and never ever underestimate anyone in your life.” 

Images: Getty