Last month, national controversy erupted when a male engineer at Google suggested that women were inherently inferior to men. I was immediately brought back to the year 1973. Billie Jean King had already rocked professional tennis and stunned the world by smashing every last glass ceiling in tennis with her powerful serve and tireless crusade for women’s equality. She already had twenty titles at Wimbledon under her belt and was responsible for organizing the Women’s Tennis Association, a union that gave women players more bargaining power.
But all those accomplishments just weren’t good enough for tennis champ Bobby Riggs, who claimed that he could easily beat King in a match simply because men were inherently superior to women.
So what was King’s response? Did she challenge Riggs’ rights to make such remarks? Did she try to get him kicked out of tennis for his comments? Did she cause a stir in the media over the whole debacle? No.
All Billie Jean King did was offer one response: “Game on.”
After three straight set victories, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, she proved without a doubt that Bobby Riggs was dead wrong. There was no better way to show the world and the man who alleged, “Number one, the woman should stay in the bedroom. Number two, they should get to the kitchen. Number three, they should support the man,” that women deserved equal access and consideration in the sports industry than crushing him in front of 90 million viewers.
I was there that historic night. On the court.
The “Battle of the Sexes”, as it was called, which celebrates its 44th anniversary today, occurred shortly after the passage of Title IX legislation in 1972—and proved to be a defining moment in the women’s movement. King’s victory spawned a generation of young girls to believe in the art of the possible.
Having grown up playing daily tennis matches, I was comfortable with winning and losing all the time. It wasn’t until I raised my own daughters that I became keenly aware of the way society encourages boys to compete through sports every day - win lose, get shut down, get right back up. This competitive resilience is not instilled in young girls the same way, though progress is being made. Thanks to Title IX, 3.1 million girls play sports today, an over tenfold increase since King beat Riggs. Overcoming obstacles and challenging oneself is inherent to athletics. And, as I learned directly from Billie Jean, who I am thankful to call a mentor, if you aren’t at the table — you’re on the menu.
Later in my career, as I began my nonprofit, the Institute for Education, and got to pitch important donors, sit in meetings with world leaders, and host events for the D.C. elite, the confidence I built from competition allowed me to feel I could hold my own in any setting, whether on the tennis court or in the boardroom.
However, in today’s discourse regarding gender, racial, or economic inequality, there seems to be a tendency to reject dialogue and challenge. From protesters at Reed College actively shutting down a lecture by a speaker with whom they disagreed to protesters in California aiming to prevent dissenting political opinions on campus — there is a desire for uniform ideology. Irrespective of intention and goals, these groups and individuals reject the traditional parameters of debate. There is no two-way conversation.
With that said, let me be clear — discrimination based on gender, income and race is real. Moreover, that discrimination is oftentimes institutionalized, and does not hold any quick and easy solution. But if we can take one lesson from Billie Jean’s legendary victory in the “Battle of the Sexes,” it’s that, while the rules need to be changed to tackle systemic inequality, there is still great power in demonstrating excellence.
Instead of silencing free speech that is ignorant or hateful, I have faith in the ability of America’s young people to challenge regressive ideas head-on — to let a controversial guest come speak on campus and to meet that polemicist with critical questions and superior arguments. I feel we have encouraged America’s young people to shy away from confrontation in an unhealthy way.
However, as exemplified by King, standing up and speaking out, rather than silencing your opponents can hold great credence. That’s not to say obstacles faced by disenfranchised are as easy as picking up a tennis racket — far from it.
Talking with those with whom you disagree, engaging in critical conversation, and, when the opportunity presents itself, taking your place at the table will do far more good than silencing opposition.