Growing up in an athletic family in a neighborhood full of baby boomer kids, Billie Jean King enthusiastically participated in front lawn football games and was a favored player to be recruited for teams at her father’s fire department picnics. In her autobiography, All In, the championship tennis player writes that as a child, she never questioned that she would be able to play whatever sports appealed to her.
She learned the limits of her dreams at age nine when her parents took Billie Jean and her brother Randy, who would go on to be a Major League Baseball pitcher, to a Pacific Coast League baseball game. King looked down on the field and realized that all of the baseball players were men. There were things that she, as a woman, would not be allowed to pursue.
The players in that baseball game were also all white men. Shortly after, in the early 1950s, King saw Althea Gibson, the woman who broke the color barrier in tennis, play at a tournament in Los Angeles. In her early understanding of separate but equal through the lens of sports, King says she decided that she would bring people together through tennis. All In is the narrative of her efforts to do precisely that. It is written with a combination of tenacity and enthusiasm that marked her career.
When King decided to compete at Wimbledon rather than attend her high school graduation, she recognized her commitment to tennis, although she saw the culture of the sport then as racist, classist, antisemitic, and bound by confining gender expectations. King recalls her naivete with an uncommon humility, which perhaps unintentionally stirs empathy in the reader.
While at college, she trained with and played against both male and female members of the team. She relates that losing to a woman was often a terrific ego blow to male players, leading her to lie about her wins to protect those she played against. King foreshadows the famous Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs in 1973, admitting that she nearly let her guard down late in the match, worrying how Riggs would be humiliated if she won. Raised with traditional attitudes about gender and sexuality, King struggled to reconcile her values with her choices throughout her life.
She says that Larry King, her husband from 1965 to 1987, made her a feminist while they were dating and both playing tennis at Los Angeles State (later California State University, Los Angeles). He told her that as the seventh ranked men’s tennis player, he was still treated better than she was, and he considered her the best athlete at the university.
While King may not have been aware that she wasn’t treated as well as male athletes, the financial inequities quickly became clear to her. After winning singles, doubles, and mixed doubles at Wimbledon in 1967, King was awarded only a £45 gift certificate. She gathered her courage and found her voice, speaking out about how the amateur tennis system in the United States prevented players from being competitive internationally. She also argued that women’s tennis needed to move from the society page to the sports page.
Shortly after, the amateur/professional distinction in grand slam tennis was dissolved. Although King was among those tennis players who could now earn a living wage as an athlete, she was continually bothered by the disparities in pay based on gender.
King gives readers a firsthand account of the fight for women’s rights during the ’60s and ’70s but her focus is on professional sports. When women began protesting the disparities in prize money, organizers either limited or simply eliminated the women’s side of the tournament. In 1971, she and a group of seven other women formed the first professional women’s tennis tournament.
Gladys Heldman, the publisher of World Tennis magazine, was the tour promoter and brought on cigarette maker Virginia Slims as the title sponsor. That year, King’s prize money for the US Open was $5k, but Stan Smith, who won the men’s tournament, was awarded $15k. Despite this disparity, King was still on track to be the first female athlete to earn $100k in a year.
Central to King’s story is her recounting of the Battle of the Sexes, the 1973 match against Bobby Riggs. Riggs took great pleasure in his misogynist banter and bragging, only to lose the match to King. The cultural impact of a woman winning the so-called Battle of the Sexes was significant. Already an international celebrity tennis player, King now became a symbol for women’s rights, inspiring courage and confidence in millions of women.
After beating Riggs, King arrived at a new level of fame and influence. She addressed the Senate regarding 1972’s Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in federally funded programs (it is primarily focused on education), she established the Women’s Sports Foundation, then she and Larry worked with other promoters and investors to organize World TeamTennis. Gender equity was a fundamental concern for her, and she writes with humor about being asked by journalists if she considered herself a feminist, which she says inspired her to turn news conferences into consciousness-raising sessions.
In the early ’70s, King also began a difficult romantic relationship with her secretary, Marilyn Barrett, which she worked diligently to keep private. Despite having had a sexual experience with a woman and recognizing her attraction to both men and women, King admits she was homophobic. She knew that if her sexuality was made public, she would be made an outcast. Although King ended the relationship, Barrett outed her in 1981 when she sued Billie Jean and Larry King after trying to blackmail them.
Against the advice of her attorneys and publicists, King decided to address her sexuality publicly. Among the exclusive interviews she gave was one with Barbara Walters on the television news program, 20/20. Everyone in her inner circle was supportive, including her conservative parents and Larry, to whom she was still married.
Although she was already deeply involved in her relationship with South African pro tennis player Ilana Kloss, Billie Jean presented her marriage to Larry as strong and constant, despite her affair with Marilyn. As a consequence, she lost most of her endorsements, ran up extraordinary legal fees, and had to postpone her retirement from tennis. King and Kloss finally came out as a couple in 2006 and have been together for 40 years.
King is poignantly aware of the significance of her story. Toward the end of All In, she writes about her delight at seeing young LGBTQ+ people self-identify as such publicly, something she and her generation struggled to do safely. Not only did her courage and diligence help transform acceptance of gay and lesbian culture, she also has been a maverick force in promoting women’s sports. King’s story traces a path from where we were to where we are headed.