Illustration of Billie Jean King playing tennis

All Illustrations by Dave Shephard

Billie Jean King

She changed the game for women in sports.

Growing up in Long Beach, California, Billie Jean King played basketball, volleyball, and softball. In 1954, when King was in fifth grade, she started playing tennis. The second time she picked up a racket, she set a goal.

“I wanted to be the best player in the world,” King says. 

Before long, King realized that female players faced discrimination. Boys were treated differently than girls. When she was 12, King was left out of a team photo because she was wearing shorts instead of a tennis skirt. 

“I’ll show them someday,” King recalls thinking. “That was when I decided to fight for equality for the rest of my life.”

Leading the Way

Over the next decade, King’s determination paid off. By 1966, she was the number 1 female tennis player in the world. 

Despite her success, King wasn’t satisfied. Female tennis players earned less money than male players and played in fewer tournaments.

In 1970, a fed-up King convinced eight other top players to start their own all-female tournament. Each agreed to be paid just one dollar.

“We decided that any girl born in this world would have a place to compete,” King says. “We were willing to give up our careers for future generations.”

The plan was a success and led to more tournaments for women. In 1971, King became the first female athlete to earn more than $100,000 in a single season. She founded the Women’s Tennis Association two years later. 

Game-Changing Law

But there was still work to do. In the early 1970s, most schools had few girls’ sports teams. Those that did gave more funding to boys’ teams.

In 1972, Congress passed a new law called Title IX. It said that public schools had to give equal opportunities to male and female athletes. Eventually, schools added more girls’ teams and offered more athletic scholarships to female players.

“Title IX is one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th century,” King says.

Still, some lawmakers tried to get rid of the law or weaken it. In 1973, King spoke in front of Congress in support of Title IX. The next year, she created the Women’s Sports Foundation, which continues to fight to uphold the law. 

Not Finished Yet

King played her last pro match in 1990. But she has continued to fight tirelessly for women in sports.

“I’m not finished yet,” she says. “It’s really important to keep lifting up others and creating opportunities.”

King reminds people that her lifelong fight for equality began when she was 12 years old.

“You’re not too young,” King says. “If you have a dream, go for it.”

  1. Describe a time when King experienced discrimination.
  2. Why does the article say there was “still work to do” in the early 1970s, and how did Title IX help?
  3. What advice does King give to kids?
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