Revisiting the Battle of the Sexes

In the chapter titled “Being a Woman and other disabilities” from The Playing Field of Eton, Mika LeVaque-Manty discusses the role of women and people with disabilities in the sports world and other competitions. It is widely believed that boys are naturally superior to girls in sports based simply on genetics of strength and body composition. There are biological differences between males and females that lead to disparity in their performances on the field and there are social ideas that categorize men and women based on their performances. People tend to support men’s sports more than women because they think male athletes are “better” than their female counterparts. Men are generalized to be strong, tough, competitive and aggressive while women are seen as fragile, caring, and emotional. These stereotypes stress the idea that men should be the ones dominating sports. Which brings us to the cultural phenomenon that was The Battle of the Sexes. 

On September 20, 1973, women’s tennis star Billie Jean King faced off against Bobby Riggs in an exhibition match dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.” Throughout her career, Billie Jean King won six Wimbledon singles championships and four U.S. Open titles. Yet of all her matches, the one that is remembered most is her victory against the 55-year-old Riggs. Riggs hyped the contest with a slew of misogynistic comments, including that “the best way to handle women is to keep them pregnant and barefoot.”  His male chauvinist rants continued, declaring on one occasion, “women belong in the bedroom and kitchen, in that order.” Another time, he said, “Women play about 25 percent as good as men, so they should get about 25 percent of the money men get.”

Gender in sports is more equal than was perceived.

The hype worked; over 31,000 fans crowded the Houston Astrodome, then the largest crowd ever to watch a tennis match. Another estimated 90 million viewers watched from home. And King ended up eviscerating Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, shutting up Riggs while claiming a win for women.

At the time, Riggs sexist comments weren’t too far off from the public’s perspective.  A large portion of society believed women weren’t fit for physical exercise in the way that men were. Yet, King’s game was aggressive, hard-hitting and fierce, the exact opposite characteristics of what women were perceived to have.

Billie Jean King is still an advocate for gender equality in sports.

Her performance forced the public to take a step toward gender equality in sports, proving that women could compete in athletics with men to some degree. It was the beginnings of the foundation that women are much closer athletically to men that was previously believed. Do women still face barriers in sports based on sociological barriers? Yes. Are women still considered lesser athletes than their male counterparts? To a degree, yes. However, King’s victory over Riggs knocked down a large portion of those barriers. It proved that in society, a women’s perceived athletic excellence could be comparable to men’s and disproved the notion that women couldn’t compete with men physically. It was a major milestone, asserting that a woman’s role in the sports world is just as important as a man’s.

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4 comments

  1. prvalera · November 3, 2014

    I really like this post and all of the points that you have made. I agree with you that gender equality in sports is something that needs work. Albeit, there has been some improvement, but definitely not enough. It is true that men are genetically more fit and have more muscle than women, but that should not be a factor in denying women the right to play sports. Stereotypes such as “…women belong in the bedroom and the kitchen…” hurt our society as a whole and hurt women all over the world.
    My favorite part about this post was the fact that Billie Jean King, a woman, totally crushed the sexist and male Bobby Riggs in a tennis match. Not only does she prove that women are just as athletic as men, but she won against the player who doubted her and the entire female gender’s playing skills.
    Nowadays, sports teams have become a little more open to women. For example, there are female kickers on football teams. Our society still has to improve, but it is clear that women’s sports matter as much as men’s sports.

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  2. caitstew12 · November 4, 2014

    This was really exciting to read as I’m sure the match would have been to see! Not just because tennis is an engaging fun sport but also because of the largeness and political context of this match. I was curious while reading this whether you thought Riggs purposeful included those misogynistic comments in order to insight the crowd at the game and increase the statement King’s win would make. Is Riggs actually that chauvinistic? This was obviously a huge example of the capabilities of women and Riggs attitude added to the hype and the general political statement.

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  3. jbaren · November 4, 2014

    One other important aspect of the Battle of the Sexes is the beginning of recognition for women in the media, as well as offering them endorsement deals. Before this, women were only seen in the media, like newspapers, as advertising a kitchen or home product. After this, women started to gain much more attention in the media, and big time corporations realized that they could make money off female athletes since they were gaining so much attention. Chris Evert was another superstar after King, and was valued highly by the media and corporations. She was liked on a similar level as King because she’s American, but arguably even more so because she’s attractive. She got many endorsement deals, including one of her first advertising a new Iced Tea. The accomplishments of King and Evert opened doors for women, giving them more respect in the sports world, and in general.

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  4. benlangt · November 4, 2014

    I find the thesis of this post to be a very debated topic in our society today. We often view men as superior to women when it comes to athletics and occupations in society. However, I know that there are numerous female athletes who demonstrate more athletic skills than some males. I believe that when men degrade women in a manner such as this, it gives them even more incentive to prove they can compete at the same level as men. Billy Jean King’s victory over Riggs was enormous in changing the perception people had and limiting the men > women stigma. I know numerous female athletes who play better than men. I believe the only reason men talk smack to their female competitors is to psychologically drain them.

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