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TEDWomen 2015

Billie Jean King: This tennis icon paved the way for women in sports

May 28, 2015

Tennis legend Billie Jean King isn't just a pioneer of women's tennis -- she's a pioneer for women getting paid. In this freewheeling conversation, she talks about identity, the role of sports in social justice and the famous Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs.

Billie Jean King - Tennis legend and activist
Billie Jean King won 39 Grand Slam titles during her tennis career, and has long been a pioneer for equality and social justice. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Billie Jean King: Hi, everyone!
00:13
(Applause)
00:15
Thanks, Pat.
00:18
Thank you!
00:19
Getting me all wound up, now!
00:23
(Laughter)
00:25
Pat Mitchell: Good!
00:26
You know, when I was watching
the video again of the match,
00:28
you must have felt
like the fate of the world's women
00:32
was on every stroke you took.
00:36
Were you feeling that?
00:40
BJK: First of all, Bobby Riggs --
he was the former number one player,
00:42
he wasn't just some hacker, by the way.
00:45
He was one of my heroes and I admired him.
00:48
And that's the reason I beat him,
actually, because I respected him.
00:51
(Laughter)
00:55
It's true -- my mom
and especially my dad always said:
00:56
"Respect your opponent,
and never underestimate them, ever."
00:58
And he was correct.
He was absolutely correct.
01:01
But I knew it was about social change.
01:05
And I was really nervous
whenever we announced it,
01:08
and I felt like the whole world
was on my shoulders.
01:12
And I thought, "If I lose, it's going
to put women back 50 years, at least."
01:15
Title IX had just been passed
the year before -- June 23, 1972.
01:20
And women's professional tennis --
01:25
there were nine of us who signed
a one-dollar contract in 1970 --
01:28
now remember, the match is in '73.
01:31
So we were only in our
third year of having a tour
01:34
where we could actually play,
have a place to compete and make a living.
01:37
So there were nine of us that signed
that one-dollar contract.
01:41
And our dream was for any girl,
born any place in the world --
01:44
if she was good enough --
01:49
there would be a place for her to compete
and for us to make a living.
01:51
Because before 1968,
we made 14 dollars a day,
01:55
and we were under the control
of organizations.
01:59
So we really wanted
to break away from that.
02:01
But we knew it wasn't really
about our generation so much;
02:03
we knew it was about
the future generations.
02:06
We do stand on the shoulders of the people
that came before us, there is no question.
02:08
But every generation
has the chance to make it better.
02:12
That was really on my mind.
02:16
I really wanted to start matching
the hearts and minds to Title IX.
02:18
Title IX, in case anybody doesn't know,
which a lot of people probably don't,
02:22
said that any federal funds given
to a high school, college or university,
02:25
either public or private,
02:30
had to -- finally --
give equal monies to boys and girls.
02:32
And that changed everything.
02:37
(Applause)
02:39
So you can have a law,
02:42
but it's changing the hearts and minds
to match up with it.
02:43
That's when it really rocks, totally.
02:46
So that was on my mind.
02:49
I wanted to start that change
in the hearts and minds.
02:50
But two things came out of that match.
02:54
For women: self-confidence, empowerment.
02:56
They actually had enough nerve
to ask for a raise.
03:00
Some women have waited
10, 15 years to ask.
03:03
I said, "More importantly,
did you get it?"
03:07
(Laughter)
03:09
And they did!
03:10
And for the men?
03:11
A lot of the men today don't realize it,
03:13
but if you're in your 50s, 60s
or whatever, late 40s,
03:16
you're the first generation of men
of the Women's Movement --
03:22
whether you like it or not!
03:25
(Laughter)
03:26
(Applause)
03:30
And for the men,
03:31
what happened for the men,
they'd come up to me --
03:32
and most times, the men are the ones
who have tears in their eyes,
03:35
it's very interesting.
03:38
They go, "Billie, I was very young
when I saw that match,
03:39
and now I have a daughter.
03:43
And I am so happy I saw that
as a young man."
03:47
And one of those young men,
at 12 years old, was President Obama.
03:50
And he actually told me that
when I met him, he said:
03:54
"You don't realize it,
but I saw that match at 12.
03:57
And now I have two daughters,
04:00
and it has made a difference
in how I raise them."
04:02
So both men and women got a lot
out of it, but different things.
04:04
PM: And now there are generations --
at least one or two --
04:10
who have experienced the equality
04:13
that Title IX and other fights
along the way made possible.
04:15
And for women, there are generations
who have also experienced teamwork.
04:20
They got to play team sports
in a way they hadn't before.
04:25
So you had a legacy already built
in terms of being an athlete,
04:29
a legacy of the work you did
to lobby for equal pay for women athletes
04:35
and the Women's Sports Foundation.
04:40
What now are you looking to accomplish
04:43
with The Billie Jean King
Leadership Initiative?
04:45
BJK: I think it goes back
to an epiphany I had at 12.
04:49
At 11, I wanted to be the number one
tennis player in the world,
04:52
and a friend had asked me to play
and I said, "What's that?"
04:55
Tennis was not in my family --
basketball was, other sports.
04:58
Fast forward to 12 years old,
05:02
(Laughter)
05:04
and I'm finally starting
to play in tournaments
05:05
where you get a ranking
at the end of the year.
05:08
So I was daydreaming
at the Los Angeles Tennis Club,
05:11
and I started thinking about my sport
and how tiny it was,
05:14
but also that everybody who played
wore white shoes, white clothes,
05:19
played with white balls --
everybody who played was white.
05:23
And I said to myself, at 12 years old,
"Where is everyone else?"
05:26
And that just kept sticking in my brain.
05:34
And that moment,
05:37
I promised myself I'd fight
for equal rights and opportunities
05:38
for boys and girls, men and women,
the rest of my life.
05:41
And that tennis, if I was fortunate
enough to become number one --
05:44
and I knew, being a girl,
it would be harder to have influence,
05:48
already at that age --
05:52
that I had this platform.
05:54
And tennis is global.
05:58
And I thought, "You know what?
06:01
I've been given an opportunity
that very few people have had."
06:03
I didn't know if I was going
to make it -- this was only 12.
06:06
I sure wanted it, but making it
is a whole other discussion.
06:09
I just remember I promised myself,
and I really try to keep my word.
06:13
That's who I truly am,
just fighting for people.
06:17
And, unfortunately, women have had less.
06:21
And we are considered less.
06:26
And so my attentions,
where did they have to go?
06:29
It was just ... you have to.
06:31
And learn to stick up for yourself,
hear your own voice.
06:33
You hear the same words
keep coming out all the time,
06:36
and I got really lucky
because I had an education.
06:40
And I think if you can see it
you can be it, you know?
06:44
If you can see it, you can be it.
06:46
You look at Pat,
you look at other leaders,
06:48
you look at these speakers,
look at yourself,
06:50
because everyone --
06:53
everyone --
06:54
can do something extraordinary.
06:56
Every single person.
06:57
PM: And your story, Billie,
has inspired so many women everywhere.
06:59
Now with the Billie Jean King
Leadership Initiative,
07:04
you're taking on an even bigger cause.
07:07
Because one thing we hear a lot
about is women taking their voice,
07:09
working to find their way
into leadership positions.
07:13
But what you're talking
about is even bigger than that.
07:16
It's inclusive leadership.
07:19
And this is a generation that has grown up
thinking more inclusively --
07:21
BJK: Isn't it great?
Look at the technology!
07:25
It's amazing how it connects us all!
It's about connection.
07:27
It's simply amazing
what's possible because of it.
07:32
But the Billie Jean King
Leadership Initiative
07:35
is really about the workforce mostly,
and trying to change it,
07:38
so people can actually go to work
and be their authentic selves.
07:41
Because most of us have two jobs:
07:45
One, to fit in -- I'll give you
a perfect example.
07:48
An African American woman
gets up an hour earlier to go to work,
07:51
straightens her hair in the bathroom,
07:54
goes to the bathroom
probably four, five, six times a day
07:56
to keep straightening her hair,
to keep making sure she fits in.
07:59
So she's working two jobs.
08:02
She's got this other job,
whatever that may be,
08:04
but she's also trying to fit in.
08:06
Or this poor man who kept his diploma --
08:08
he went to University of Michigan,
08:12
but he never would talk about
his poverty as a youngster, ever --
08:14
just would not mention it.
08:18
So he made sure they saw
he was well-educated.
08:19
And then you see a gay guy
who has an NFL --
08:22
which means American football
for all of you out there,
08:24
it's a big deal, it's very macho --
08:27
and he talked about football all the time,
08:29
because he was gay
and he didn't want anybody to know.
08:31
It just goes on and on.
08:34
So my wish for everyone is to be able
to be their authentic self 24/7,
08:36
that would be the ultimate.
08:42
And we catch ourselves -- I mean,
I catch myself to this day.
08:44
Even being gay I catch myself,
you know, like,
08:48
(Gasp)
08:50
a little uncomfortable,
a little surge in my gut,
08:52
feeling not totally
comfortable in my own skin.
08:55
So, I think you have to ask yourself --
09:00
I want people to be themselves,
whatever that is, just let it be.
09:02
PM: And the first research
the Leadership Initiative did showed that,
09:05
that these examples you just used --
09:09
that many of us have the problem
of being authentic.
09:12
But what you've just looked at
is this millennial generation,
09:17
who have benefited from all these
equal opportunities --
09:21
which may not be equal
but exist everywhere --
09:25
BJK: First of all, I'm really lucky.
09:27
Partnership with Teneo,
a strategic company that's amazing.
09:29
That's really the reason
I'm able to do this.
09:33
I've had two times in my life
09:36
where I've actually had men
really behind me with power.
09:37
And that was in the old days
with Philip Morris with Virginia Slims,
09:40
and this is the second time
in my entire life.
09:43
And then Deloitte.
09:46
The one thing I wanted was data -- facts.
09:48
So Deloitte sent out a survey,
09:52
and over 4,000 people now have answered,
09:54
and we're continuing in the workplace.
09:58
And what do the millennials feel?
10:00
Well, they feel a lot, but what
they're so fantastic about is --
10:03
you know, our generation was like,
"Oh, we're going to get representation."
10:07
So if you walk into a room,
you see everybody represented.
10:10
That's not good enough anymore,
which is so good!
10:13
So the millennials are fantastic;
they want connection, engagement.
10:16
They just want you to tell us
what you're feeling, what you're thinking,
10:20
and get into the solution.
10:23
They're problem-solvers,
10:25
and of course, you've got
the information at your fingertips,
10:26
compared to when I was growing up.
10:29
PM: What did the research show you
about millennials?
10:31
Are they going to make a difference?
10:34
Are they going to create a world where
there is really an inclusive work force?
10:36
BJK: Well, in 2025,
75 percent of the global workforce
10:40
is going to be millennials.
10:46
I think they are going
to help solve problems.
10:48
I think they have
the wherewithal to do it.
10:50
I know they care a lot.
10:52
They have big ideas
and they can make big things happen.
10:54
I want to stay in the now
with the young people,
10:58
I don't want to get behind.
11:01
(Laughter)
11:04
PM: I don't think there's any chance!
11:06
But what you found out
in the research about millennials
11:09
is not really the experience that a lot
of people have with millennials.
11:12
BJK: No, well, if we want to talk --
OK, I've been doing my little mini-survey.
11:17
I've been talking to the Boomers,
who are their bosses, and I go,
11:20
"What do you think about the millennials?"
11:25
And I'm pretty excited, like it's good,
11:27
and they get this face --
11:29
(Laughter)
11:31
"Oh, you mean the 'Me' generation?"
11:33
(Laughter)
11:35
I say, "Do you really think so?
11:36
Because I do think they care
about the environment
11:38
and all these things."
11:41
And they go, "Oh, Billie,
they cannot focus."
11:43
(Laughter)
11:47
They actually have proven
11:50
that the average focus
for an 18-year-old is 37 seconds.
11:52
(Laughter)
11:55
They can't focus.
11:57
And they don't really care.
11:58
I just heard a story the other night:
12:00
a woman owns a gallery
and she has these workers.
12:01
She gets a text from one of the workers,
12:05
like an intern, she's
just starting -- she goes,
12:08
"Oh, by the way, I'm going to be late
because I'm at the hairdresser's."
12:11
(Laughter)
12:14
So she arrives, and this boss says,
12:19
"What's going on?"
12:23
And she says, "Oh, I was late,
sorry, how's it going?"
12:24
She says, "Well, guess what?
I'd like you leave, you're finished."
12:27
She goes, "OK."
12:31
(Laughter)
12:32
No problem!
12:35
PM: Now Billie, that story --
12:37
I know, but that's what
scares the boomers --
12:38
I'm just telling you --
so I think it's good for us to share.
12:40
(Laughter)
12:43
No, it is good for us to share,
12:45
because we're our authentic selves
and what we're really feeling,
12:46
so we've got to take it
both ways, you know?
12:50
But I have great faith because --
12:52
if you've been in sports like I have --
12:54
every generation gets better.
12:57
It's a fact.
12:58
With the Women's Sports Foundation
being the advocates for Title IX still,
13:00
because we're trying
to keep protecting the law,
13:04
because it's in a tenuous position always,
13:06
so we really are concerned,
13:09
and we do a lot of research.
13:11
That's very important to us.
13:13
And I want to hear from people.
13:14
But we really have to protect
what Title IX stands for worldwide.
13:17
And you heard President Carter
talk about how Title IX is protected.
13:22
And do you know that every single lawsuit
13:28
that girls, at least in sports,
have gone up against --
13:32
whatever institutions --
13:35
has won?
13:38
Title IX is there to protect us.
13:39
And it is amazing.
13:42
But we still have to get
the hearts and minds --
13:43
the hearts and minds
to match the legislation is huge.
13:47
PM: So what gets you up every morning?
13:50
What keeps you sustaining your work,
13:52
sustaining the fight
for equality, extending it,
13:54
always exploring new areas,
trying to find new ways ... ?
13:58
BJK: Well, I always drove my parents crazy
because I was always the curious one.
14:01
I'm highly motivated.
14:06
My younger brother was
a Major League Baseball player.
14:08
My poor parents did not care
if we were any good.
14:12
(Laughter)
14:15
And we drove them crazy because we pushed,
14:16
we pushed because
we wanted to be the best.
14:19
And I think it's because of what
I'm hearing today in TED talks.
14:24
I think to listen to these
different women,
14:29
to listen to different people,
14:33
to listen to President Carter --
90 years old, by the way,
14:34
and he we was throwing these figures
out that I would never --
14:38
I'd have to go,
14:41
"Excuse me, wait a minute, I need
to get a list out of these figures."
14:42
He was rattling off --
I mean, that's amazing, I'm sorry.
14:46
PM: He's an amazing man.
14:49
(Applause)
14:51
BJK: And then you're going to have
President Mary Robinson,
14:53
who's a former president --
14:57
Thank you, Irish! 62 percent! LGBTQ! Yes!
14:59
(Applause)
15:04
Congress is voting in June
on same-sex marriage,
15:05
so these are things that for some people
are very hard to hear.
15:08
But always remember,
every one of us is an individual,
15:12
a human being with a beating heart,
15:15
who cares and wants to live
their authentic life.
15:17
OK? You don't have to agree with somebody,
15:22
but everyone has the opportunity.
15:24
I think we all have an obligation
15:27
to continue to keep moving
the needle forward, always.
15:30
And these people have been so inspiring.
15:35
Everyone matters.
15:38
And every one of you is an influencer.
15:39
You out there listening, out there
in the world, plus the people here --
15:41
every single person's an influencer.
15:45
Never, ever forget that. OK?
15:46
So don't ever give up on yourself.
15:49
PM: Billie, you have been
an inspiration for us.
15:52
BJK: Thanks, Pat!
15:54
(Applause)
15:55
Thanks, TED!
15:59
(Applause)
16:00
Thanks a lot!
16:02

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Billie Jean King - Tennis legend and activist
Billie Jean King won 39 Grand Slam titles during her tennis career, and has long been a pioneer for equality and social justice.

Why you should listen

Named one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century” by Life magazine and honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, Billie Jean King is the founder of the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative and the co-founder of World TeamTennis. She founded the Women’s Sports Foundation and the Women’s Tennis Association. In August 2006, the National Tennis Center, home of the US Open, was renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in honor of her accomplishments, both on and off the court.

King grew up playing tennis in California public parks and won 39 Grand Slam titles during her career. She defeated Bobby Riggs in one of the greatest moments in sports history, the Battle of the Sexes on Sept. 20, 1973. She now serves on the boards of the Women’s Sports Foundation, the Andy Roddick Foundation, the Elton John AIDS Foundation and is a member of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.

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