By Eric W. Jentsch, Curator of Entertainment and Sports, National Museum of American History
On September 20, 1973, over 90 million global viewers tuned into a tennis match, a record for the sport. Over 30,000 fans—the largest tennis crowd in American history—attended the event. It was held in the Houston Astrodome, a massive indoor stadium nicknamed “the eighth wonder of the world.”
No championship was on the line. But for many, the stakes couldn’t have been higher.
Billed as “The Battle of the Sexes,” the match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs drew the attention of the world. It provided not only a forum for the heated debates surrounding the era’s women’s liberation movement, but also for setting a stage that might help settle them.
Leading up to the event, 55-year-old former tennis professional Bobby Riggs made stereotypical and offensive comments to seize upon the tensions emerging from women’s demands for equal rights and representation. His commentary created attention and publicity for himself.
Riggs’ sexist behavior was particularly aimed at the women of his sport, who, at the time, were actively engaged in demands for better pay, treatment, and recognition. He would say of women’s tennis “…it stinks…. you can see some pretty legs but it’s night and day compared to the men’s game.”
To “prove” male superiority in athletics, as well as secure a payday for himself, Riggs created the first “Battle of the Sexes,” played in California on Mother’s Day, 1973. There he surprised Australian professional and new mother, Margaret Court, who was unprepared for Riggs’s antics. He won the match and earned $100,000.
Billie Jean King, the most prominent woman in tennis, watched with interest. In addition to winning many championships, the 29-year-old demanded equal pay for women participants at the US Open. She also successfully organized the Women’s Tennis Association, becoming its first President.
King, the face for progress in women’s sports, was initially offered Court’s place in Riggs’ exhibition, but had declined. After Court’s defeat in what was now called “The Mother’s Day Massacre,” King concluded she would have to take on Riggs. She aimed to combat stereotypes of women in sport and also those faced by all women battling sexism at home and at the workplace.
Embracing the circus-like atmosphere of “The Battle of the Sexes,” King verbally sparred with Riggs while promoting the match. At the beginning of the Match, King entered the Astrodome in spectacular fashion: carried in like Cleopatra, wearing a sparkling blue and mint green tennis dress designed by Ted Tinling. The outfit was actually a backup; the original dress Tinling designed for King was deemed too uncomfortable. To ensure that it would shine under the stadium lights, Tinling added rhinestones and sequins to the dress on the morning of the match. The now iconic dress is part of the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Despite the silliness surrounding the exhibition, King understood its symbolic importance. She said later, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match …It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”
King didn’t need to worry. After shaking off a little discomfort at the start, she dominated Riggs in the match, defeating him in straight sets. “The Battle of the Sexes” had a clear winner.
King continued to be a force for progress in both tennis and society, including being one of the first openly gay professional athletes. She won 129 singles matches, including 12 Grand Slam singles titles, and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. King has also received recognition for her advocacy and humanitarian work. She was awarded the French Legion of Honor and the US Presidential Medal of Freedom.
King remains a leader in the struggle for societal change. In her own words, she is fighting “for equality and freedom and equal rights and opportunities for everyone. Everyone. Not just girls. Everyone.”
Eric W. Jentsch is the Curator of Entertainment and Sports, Division of Culture and the Arts at the National Museum of American History, where he collects, exhibits, and researches materials related to American entertainment and sports. These include broadcast entertainment such as television and radio, film, comic books, and sports.