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.”
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.
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.