Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.— Ruth Bader Ginsburg
When I was a girl I'd sit in my elementary school classroom in Long Beach, California, staring at the big pull-down map of the world, and daydream about the places I'd go. England, Europe, Asia, South America, Africa! Even then, I felt that borders had no hold on me. They connected me. I can't remember a time when I didn't have a restlessness, an ambition, and an urgency. As much as I loved my family and hometown, I always knew that my life would somehow take me beyond their embrace.
I was born in the wartime 1940s, reared in the buttoned-down 1950s, and came of age during the Cold War and rebellions of the 1960s. My father was a firefighter, and my mother was a homemaker who sometimes sold Tupperware and Avon products to help us get by. They were both determined to give my younger brother, Randy, and me a loving existence that was more stable than their broken families had been. But unrest was all around us. My early life played out against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the Cold War, assassinations, and antiwar protests of the 1960s; the LGBTQ+ rights movement would come later.
When I began playing youth tennis in the 1950s, college sports scholarships didn't exist for girls. The only women's pro sport was the Ladies Professional Golf Association, which was founded in 1950 by thirteen players but was still working to build purses and gain traction. The modern women's sports movement as we know it essentially started the day nine of us players and a sharp businesswoman named Gladys Heldman, the publisher of World Tennis magazine, broke away in 1970 to create the first women's pro tennis circuit, ignoring the sneers from a male-run tennis establishment that told us no one would pay to see us play, and then repeatedly threatened us with suspensions when it looked as if folks might.
I didn't start out with grievances against the world, but the world certainly seemed to have grievances against girls and women like me: There was the principal who wouldn't sign a permission slip to excuse me for a week-long tennis tournament until my mom went to the school office and said, "My daughter is a straight-A student. What could possibly be the problem?"; the elementary school teacher who sent a note to my parents explaining that she was marking me down a grade because "Billie Jean occasionally takes advantage of her superior ability" during recess playground games; the local tennis official at my first tennis tournament, Perry T. Jones, who turned heads by yanking me out of a group photograph when I was eleven years old because I was wearing white shorts, not a white skirt or white tennis dress.
Pursuing your goals as a girl or woman then often meant being pricked and dogged by slights like that. It made no sense to me. Why would anyone set arbitrary limits on another human being? Why were we being treated as "unreasonable" for asking reasonable questions? Why were we constantly told, Can't do this. Don't do that. Temper your ambition, lower your voice, stay in your place, act less competent than you are. Do as you're told? Why weren't a female's striving and individual differences seen as life enriching, a source of pride, rather than a problem?
If I felt that way, I wondered how the people of color around me felt. When I was young I'd seen photos of how the Little Rock Nine students had to walk past an angry white mob to desegregate their Arkansas school in 1957, and how six-year-old Ruby Nell Bridges still had to be escorted daily by four federal marshals to attend classes at her previously all-white New Orleans school three years later. I knew the stories of how Althea Gibson and Jackie Robinson broke the color barriers in their respective sports, tennis and baseball.
The all-white country clubs that hosted tennis tournaments I began playing in were noticeably different from Long Beach's Polytechnic High, the racially mixed school I attended. Poly was integrated in 1934, nine years before I was born. But my high school didn't offer varsity sports for girls; free tennis instruction in the public parks was my only option.
As time passed, the incidents kept piling up. There was the sight of the top-ranked teenage boys getting free meals at the lunch counter at the Los Angeles Tennis Club while my mother and I sat outside on benches behind the courts, eating the brown-bag lunches we brought. We weren't comped, even though I was a top junior player, too. There was the future adviser who introduced himself to me after I won a match at age fifteen and said, "You're going to be No. 1 someday, Billie Jean"—a thrilling first—only to have him tell me later, as casually as if he were appraising my backhand, "You'll be good because you're ugly."
After I married Larry King and rose to No. 1 in the world, I still faced constant questions about whether playing tennis was "worth it," and when I was going to retire and have children.
"Do you ask Rod Laver the same questions?" I'd respond, referring to one of the great male players of my era.
Even if you're not a born activist, life can damn sure make you one.
The older I got, the more I aspired to. There wasn't just unrest in the world around us. There was a storm gathering inside me.
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