Opinion: ‘Battle of the Sexes’ 50 years ago this month opened many men’s eyes to what women could accomplish

AP File Photo/Alastair Grant / Tennis legend Billie Jean King acknowledges the crowd after being introduced from her seat in the Royal Box on Centre Court during the Wimbledon tennis championships in London, on July 8, 2023.

It was the topic of conversation for the boys on the hallway wall, we sophomores who'd arrived at Brainerd High School before the first bell in the mid-September days of 1973.

The "it" was billed as "The Battle of the Sexes," the upcoming tennis match between former No. 1 men's pro Bobby Riggs and one of the top women's pros, Billie Jean King. A hundred grand ($100,000 — around $659,000 today) was on the line.

Although Riggs was considerably older (55) than King (29), we had no doubt she would be dispatched. Earlier in the year, he'd knocked off Margaret Court, the top women's player in the world. I don't recall any boy taking King's side in the conversation, though girls waiting for the bell on the other wall probably had their hopes. And, as timid, first-month high school students, none of us were about to go over and engage the girls in a conversation about the match.

Of the two, Riggs had engaged in a bit of taunting, though how much was an act — as some have maintained since — cannot be known. He'd said women "don't have the emotional stability [to win]" and "women belong in the bedroom and kitchen, in that order." And, reportedly, he'd done more partying and less training for the match with King as he'd done for the one with Court.

As anyone alive at the time, or who may have seen the 2017 film "Battle of the Sexes," knows, King throttled the four-time U.S. Open champion in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, in a nationally televised spectacle in the Houston Astrodome. More than 30,000 people watched in person and more than 90 million people on TV. That was 50 years ago last week.

None of us likely had much background at the time on King's behind-the-scenes battle for equal pay for women — she'd achieved it for the U.S. Open earlier that year — but her win over Riggs, I believe, made many men and some of us boys rethink some of our traditional sexist views.

I'd like to think I already was a bit enlightened. After all, my mother worked full-time, unlike the mothers of nearly all of my friends. Due to her hustle and good nature, she was the leading sales representative for the small business my father had founded.

She also was the occasional teacher for her adult Sunday school class at our United Methodist church, a prospect unthinkable at the Baptist churches where most of my friends attended and where women could not be in authority over men.

Ours was the same church, by the way, that a few years later was one of the first United Methodist churches in the city to employ a woman as an associate pastor.

What was going on at the time, people would later write, was "second-wave" feminism, the first wave being the period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when women gained the right to vote and other legal rights.

The second wave also coincided with the highly publicized attempt to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which was designed to guarantee equal legal rights to all Americans regardless of their gender. Although it originally was introduced in Congress in 1923, it was reintroduced in the House in 1971. It quickly passed the House and the Senate — about a year-and-a-half before the King-Riggs match — and thus went to the individual states to be ratified.

It needed ratification by 38 states and had the backing of three successive presidents, Republicans Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter. Through 1977, two years ahead of the 1979 deadline, 35 states had ratified. Then conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly mobilized conservative women against it, five states (including Tennessee) revoked their ratifications, and the amendment — even after Carter extended the deadline — was all but dead.

King's quest went on, though, and she eventually won equal pay for women in all four Grand Slam tournaments. She played another 11 years as a pro and wound up with 39 total singles and doubles Grand Slam championships. But she also continued to advocate for women's rights and gay rights after revealing her homosexuality in 1981 (she'd been married to a man during the match with Riggs).

Men, who believed that most sports were their bailiwick, sat up and took notice with King's win 50 years ago (despite rumors that circulated 10 years ago that Riggs threw the match to pay off a large gambling debt to the Mafia). If women were a man's equal (or better) on the court, maybe they could be a man's equal (or better) in the boardroom, at the ballot box or at the box office.

If nothing else, it opened many eyes.

Women haven't yet achieved all they desire in the name of equality, but "The Battle of the Sexes," now 50 years in the rear view mirror, was a flashpoint in that battle.