This week marked the 40th anniversary of the Battle of the Sexes. Don't have a clue what I'm talking about? The event was the tennis match between Billie Jean King and the now-deceased Bobby Riggs. The commentator was the unforgettable Howard Cosell, who called it a "very, very quaint, unique event."
And ABC news and other sources are telling us that maybe it was rigged—by Riggs.
It is a bit jarring now to remember how important this match seemed in 1973. Millions of people watched on television. The Houston Astrodome was packed with spectators.
Billie Jean was 29; Riggs was 55, a former Wimbledon and U.S. Open Champ fallen into comedic shtick, coasting on his former fame. Billie Jean was a crusader for women's rights; Bobby Riggs was a hustler and a tennis has-been. Still, the betting was on Riggs—surely he could beat a mere woman?
I hadn't thought about the event in years, but when I saw the segment on the news I immediately remembered where I was, who I was with—having dinner with a bunch of Cambridge friends who had gathered to watch the match on a small black and white television. It was a mixed crowd (men and woman), and I don't remember how we reacted at the outcome. But the record shows that King won in straight sets, making Riggs look winded and out of shape and pathetic.
And now someone claims that Riggs threw the match, to settle his gambling debts with the Mob. King disputes it, but then, she would, wouldn't she? She worked hard for her win.
The whole thing makes me sad. Okay, it was a hokey event, more prime-time entertainment than sport. But it said something about the status of women in 1973. In an ESPN article by Don Van Natta Jr. from August 25th, the author points out that in 1973 a married woman couldn't get a credit card without her husband's signature. Ah, yes, those were the days. (Guess what, ladies—we're still earning less than men for the same jobs.)
I was part of an art history graduate school program then where the numbers of men and women were more or less equal—but the men got the elephant's share of financial aid. Heaven forbid one of the woman should get married during her studies, or (gasp) have a baby! A number of the women did drop out. What was the point of racking up big debts if you weren't going to find a job anyway, because your (male) professors were pushing their (male) favorites? Maybe it's better now. I don't know because after several years of trying to find a job in art history, I moved on to other things.
But just for a moment, in September 1973, it felt good to see a woman—a smart, well-trained woman—beat a man. And it makes me sad now to have that little victory, however flawed, taken away from us.