With Thanks to Billie Jean

by Cheryl Pekar

I have never been into playing sports. In fact one of the highlights of my high school career was getting an A in PE... the semester I was out on medical leave and never did anything, go figure. But during that time I fell in love with watching the game of tennis. I especially love watching the battle of two people, two rackets, and a ball. Some people say it is boring, I find it mesmerizing. My father, while a blue collar worker, didn’t care for football or basketball but loved tennis so it was one of the few things that we could enjoy together.

When the open era of tennis began in 1968 (professionals and amateurs could play in the same tournaments), the men were paid a great deal more for their winnings than the women. At its best, the men were paid about 5 times more than women. At its worst, men were paid 12 times more in prize money than the women were, a huge inequality. While my father could have cared less (and while we never had the conversation, I would imagine that he thought this was the right way with the world), I was preparing for college and a career and watched this closely.

In 1970 a group of women called the Original 9 formed the Virginia Slims Series by signing a contract for $1.00 each. Three years later that led to the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association under the founding leadership of Billie Jean King. While many of us remember the Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean and Bobby Riggs in 1973, few remember that a few weeks earlier the WTA was instrumental in securing equal pay for women at the US Open. This was the first sports event where women received awards equal to that of men and was the beginning of equal pay for women in other sports. Over the next several years, other venues and other sports followed this initiative.

While women continue to struggle for equal pay for equal work, this action from almost fifty years ago was a huge step towards this goal. I was lucky in my career, which was mostly male dominated, to come close to the equal pay for equal work. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if equal pay wasn’t any kind of an issue for the women of the future and lack of equal pay for women was just an historical artifact?