- Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports
Game, Set, Match by Susan Ware connects the life of tennis great Billie Jean King with the larger women’s sports revolution in the 1970s. Through King’s life, Ware is able to examine the close connection between the second-wave feminist movement and American sports. She argues that King provided groups like the National Organization of Women (NOW) with a prominent popularly acceptable figurehead who could further the cause of women’s equality in the United States. At the same time, Ware also explores how the explosion of female participation in sports after the enactment of Title IX fundamentally altered American attitudes towards women. She contends that sports offered a unique platform for discussions concerning equality in American society because of its pervasive role in the culture. The life of Billie Jean King also allows Ware to investigate the cultural attitudes towards homosexual participation in sports.
As a non-traditional biography, Ware is primarily concerned with the portion of King’s career that corresponded with the second-wave feminist movement. While every chapter does mention King, she is sometimes only a supplemental character brought in to preserve the narrative thread of the book. Despite the, at times, only tangential connection of King to certain topics, Ware does a fine job of arguing King’s influence even when she was not directly involved.
One of the most important of King’s influential moments came in 1973 when she played Bobby Riggs in the so-called “Battle of the Sexes.” The timing of the match, in the wake of Title IX’s passage only a year before, brought to a head the debate over women’s ability to compete in athletics as equals with men. King’s defeat of Riggs became a symbol for both current, and future, female athletes. King instantly vaulted to celebrity status and her popularity allowed her to demand both pay and respect equivalent to what male athletes earned. King became the most prominent female athlete of her day and the gains of the second-wave feminists movement allowed her to achieve what earlier women, like Baba Zaharias, had failed to do. When it became public knowledge that King had taken part in a homosexual relationship though, many of her sponsors abandoned her. While [End Page 206] women had made considerable inroads to equality in American society, some minority groups had made fewer advances.
Many of the gains made by women occurred during the course of King’s career, and she became linked with their progress and developments whether she wanted to or not. In examining the larger scope of women’s athletic achievements in the 1970s, Game, Set, Match contributes little that previous historians, including Ware herself, have not already covered. Detailed sections concerning the legal challenges to Little League Baseball’s ban against female players, the impact of Title IX on women’s basketball, and the conflict between the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) have each been treated in other works dedicated to the individual topics. Where the book does add to the historiography is at the points when Ware can most clearly connect or plausibly imply King’s influence on events, such as her role in the establishment of WomenSports magazine. The periodical provided a much-needed venue for highlighting and discussing women’s athletics in the United States and put pressure on larger publications like Sports Illustrated to begin covering women’s topics.
Those magazines also contribute to Ware’s list of sources concerning the women’s sports movement. In addition she also draws heavily from the archives of NOW and the Women’s Sports Foundation to tell the story of women’s athletics rise in the late twentieth century. Much of her information concerning King herself comes from King’s two autobiographies and various interviews she gave. The author did interview...