To this day my 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" match against Bobby Riggs remains cast in the public imagination as the defining moment for me where everything coalesced and some fuse was lit. But in truth, that drive had been smoldering in me since I was a child. What the Riggs match and its fevered buildup proved was that millions of others felt locked in the same tug-of-war over gender roles and equal opportunities. I wanted to show that women deserve equality, and we can perform under pressure and entertain just as well as men. I think the outcome, and the discussions the match provoked, advanced our fight. A crowd of 30,472, then a record for tennis, came to the Houston Astrodome for the match that September night. An estimated 90 million more watched the event worldwide on TV, a record for a sporting event.
Along the way, it has always amazed me when people saw me as a separatist. I'm an egalitarian, and I always have been. I've always pushed for everything to be equal, everyone pulling together, though I know how hard that is to achieve.
What's become clear to me is that people and leaders of every generation have to argue and re-argue the details and meanings of eras for themselves. Coretta Scott King put it perfectly when she wrote, "Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation."
Today the work of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP is carried on by groups such as Black Lives Matter. The feminist arguments advanced by NOW helped inform the #MeToo movement and TIME'S UP. The 1969 Stonewall uprising led to ACT UP, which eventually led to LGBTQ+ rights and then marriage equality, gains that once seemed unfathomable. It wasn't so long ago that women were fighting to get a few precious slots at medical schools and law schools. Now women run for president and sit on the Supreme Court and are celebrated with handles like "Notorious RBG." (May she rest in power.)
Two of the unchanging, overarching lessons of my life are that people's existence is rarely improved by sitting still in the face of injustice, and that the human spirit should never be underestimated. The human spirit can't be caged. What starts as a spark of ambition can not only lift you personally, it can change the world. The personal is political. A murmur rising from one soul can become a roar expressed by many. An act of defiance—insisting on basic human dignity, equal pay for equal work, a front seat on the bus—can ignite a movement that alters history. It may even sweep you into the company of presidents and queens, heroes and groundbreakers and contrarians who refuse to accept the status quo, especially when it renders them inferior or seems designed to erase them completely.
My life is proof of all that.
When I was outed as gay in 1981, corporate sponsors deserted me overnight. Today I laugh and think, "Wait—I get paid now to be a lesbian?"
But I'm getting ahead of myself—
Early on, what was most apparent to me was that the world I wanted didn't exist yet. It would be up to my generation to create it. We were born on the cusp of the Baby Boom and walked a tightrope between shedding the old and shaping the new. For me, the timing turned out to be a profound blessing—and a burden that nearly broke me by age fifty, to a degree that few people know. Sometimes my biggest opponent was me.
Along the way, people often thought I was angry. They were wrong. More than anything, I was determined.
I won my share of fights.
But let me tell you how I truly became free.
I can still remember exactly what it looked, felt, and sounded like on that September afternoon in 1954 when my life changed forever. The sky overhead was bright as a bluebird's wing. The Southern California sun felt warm on my skin, and I could smell the spicy bark of the eucalyptus trees that surrounded the public tennis courts at Houghton Park in Long Beach. A handful of boys and girls were lining up for their drills as I arrived with my friend Susan Williams for my very first session with a coach named Clyde Walker. It wasn't long before the thwock-thwock-thwock of the balls being struck on our court blended into the noise rising from the adjoining court, too. Susan had introduced me to the sport a few weeks earlier by asking me a simple question as we sat in our fifth-grade classroom: "Do you want to play tennis?"
"What's tennis?" I replied.