How quickly we forget what we didn't have back in the day—equal rights! Ware's book reminds us of how hard Billie Jean King and other feminists fought to bring the social consciousness into the reality of female discrimination.
My generation—the 50s girls—were called tomboys if we liked sports. We didn't have the opportunities that girls and women of the Title IX generation do. They take for granted that competing in sports is something that you do because you want to.
There may have been worse forms of prejudice (socially) in the U.S., but there is no sharper example of inequity than that which operated against girls and women who took part or wished to take part in competitive sports. School administrators were not necessarily opposed to women's sports as long as they could do it without cutting into programs for men. Normally those in charge of making these decisions were men.
In 1973, Billie Jean King was the right feminist in the right sport at the right moment in American history. Her match against Bobby Riggs cemented her stature as America's first female sports superstar. She proved that women did not choke, were not frail and weak, and could face pressure and take it. In a single tennis match, Billie Jean was able to do more for the cause of women than most feminists can achieve in a lifetime. To this day, strangers, especially women, still approach Billie Jean to tell her that the match changed their lives. She moved beyond just tennis to become a symbol for something even bigger: women's rights and women's changing role in society.
Billie Jean appears in every chapter of Ware's book, but sometimes only in a supporting role—it shows where her story and that of Title IX converge—working toward eradicating all forms of discrimination in careers, personal lifestyles, and athletics. She wanted little girls to dare to dream of equal-opportunity and offered her career as a model and an inspiration. In 1990 Life magazine named her one of the hundred most influential people of the twentieth century.
Now the dilemma of modern feminism is how to recognize and embrace difference while also seeking formal equality. One of the major tenets is freedom of choice—women should be free to pursue any life courses they choose unencumbered by stereotypes or traditional gender expectations—in sports or any other areas. There is a tendency now to dismiss feminism as a relic of the past, to talk about the amazing opportunities girls have these days, to act as if the revolution is over and the mission accomplished. Well, it isn't.
Ware's view of history should be read by women of all ages—those who lived through it and survived as well as (perhaps especially) the younger ones who benefited by it.
Susan Ware is an independent scholar who specializes in twentieth-century U.S. history, women's history, and biography. The acclaimed biographer of Amelia Earhart, Molly Dewson, Mary Margaret McBride and other significant figures in women's history, Ware introduces her new book about Billie Jean King as a feminist sports icon and the catalyst of the women's sports revolution in the 1970s that fundamentally reshaped American society. Visit her website.
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