“It’s just really important that we start celebrating our differences. Let’s start tolerating first, but then we need to celebrate our differences.” — Billie Jean King
“I wanted to use sports for social change.” — Billie Jean King
“You’ve Come a Long Way Baby.” — Virginia Slims cigarette slogan, first sponsor of the women’s tennis circuit which later became the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association).
Each generation experiences firsthand a series of events which become mile markers and touchstones for our lives. The past two weeks, I was reminded, while watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s riveting PBS documentary series, The Vietnam War, of being a baby boomer who came of age from preteen to young adult during the Vietnam War. Beginning last year, and continuing this year, I watched documentaries and narrative films about the anniversaries of Civil Rights protest marches, riots, and tragedies, most recently the film Detroit. On Friday, the reminiscing continued when I saw the new film, Battle of the Sexes, chronicling the $100,000 tennis television spectacle between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, billed as the “battle of the sexes,” women’s libber vs. chauvinist pig.
I mention each of these historical events, which played out on the national stage and in living rooms across America and the world, because they were also directly impacting me. As I watched news unfold on television and read the daily newspapers, I slowly became a social activist as my awareness was raised. I was against the war in Vietnam, for Civil Rights and protection under the law for all, and as my consciousness continued to be raised, I evolved into a budding feminist, who later came out as a lesbian, fighting for both women’s and LGBTQ rights.
In 1973, when the “Battle of the Sexes” tourney took place, I was living and working in Kenosha, Wisconsin with my first love, my husband Frank. I was working at Jockey, International (yeah, I think it’s both funny and ironic too. I inspected the fabric for men’s underwear!). I had subscribed to Ms. Magazine and was beginning to develop a growing awareness of feminism. I considered myself lucky though, my marriage was, for the most part, egalitarian. Frank and I had met at college, became involved in civil rights, the antiwar movement, and the growing hippie counterculture. As we grew tired of the “psychedelic, rock-a-rock-a-bullshit” (translate drug addiction, living off the grid, etc.), we became members of the blue-collar working class.
It was during that time I met Gloria at work. Yes, I love to reference the Patti Smith version of Van Morrison’s song G-L-O-R-I-A when I remember her. We began a friendship and soon established a once-a-week date. The friendship quickly turned into a mutual sexual attraction, though I was married and Gloria was in a lesbian relationship. It became clear however that we would need to make a decision. We did. We decided not to act on it, and soon I talked Frank into moving to Madison, Wisconsin, so I could return to school. It was, in fact, a geographic escape for me. I wasn’t ready to leave Frank or take a woman lover, yet I was absolutely and completely infatuated with Gloria.
Frank and I arrived in Madison. The Watergate hearings were concluding, the war in Vietnam was winding down and troops were returning home. By the mid-seventies, I quit school at UW-Madison, and returned to work full-time as a screenprinter for a family-owned business, Advertising Creations. It was good to work with my hands again and learn a trade. While I worked, I also pursued new avocations including, participating in, and later organizing and facilitating, feminist consciousness-raising groups for NOW (National Organization for Women).
Battle of the Sexes Redux
Though it was the mid-seventies and a couple of years since Billie Jean King’s victory over Bobby Riggs, discussions about politics and the women’s movement were among our coffee-break and lunch topics at work. After I began working as a printer in a predominantly male environment, I quickly became the mouthpiece for feminism, and most liberal causes. Though my colleagues knew I was married, they hadn’t met Frank yet, and because I often was outspoken about civil rights, there was betting going on behind the scenes that I was married to a black man. Some coworkers lost that bet.
The screenprinting business was owned by three brothers and their father. I liked the family a lot. I felt at home, in some ways because it was a family-owned business, and like most families was both functional and dysfunctional. The eldest brother, John was a handsome alpha-male, a cross between Nick Nolte and Robert Redford (when they were much younger and handsome). He was a former Marine, and his vanity license plate on his Harley motorcycle was “The King” after Elvis Presley. When he wasn’t driving his cycle — in summers, it was his orange Corvette, and the rest of the year, a white Eldorado Cadillac — you get the picture!
John was a “man’s man,” and a man who liked women, especially women who liked men and deferred to him. He quickly became my foil as I became the lightning rod for women’s rights. He would regale us with stories at coffee break or lunch on Friday’s, sometimes at the bar down the road, The Farm, about his adventures on Thursday nights.
He bowled in a league on Thursdays and his adventures continued afterwards, often late into the evening. He called those nights “grab-ass” nights. John was an extremely good storyteller, yet sometimes it was difficult to parse fact from fiction. Full disclosure: Though we had our philosophical and political differences, we shared a mutual respect and affection for each other.
Besides political discussions, grab-ass tales, and more, we often played ping pong during lunchtime most of the year, and threw horseshoes in the summer. Frequent Friday nights after the work week, we’d pitch-in for a 12-pack (or more) of beer and play more ping pong or horseshoes. There was of course, especially in this predominately male environment, a lot of trash-talk while we competed. I could hold my own at ping pong and the trash-talking — not-so-much at horseshoes. Very soon, a March Madness ping pong elimination tourney ensued.
As the lone woman in the tourney, as players were eliminated, and I continued to survive the competition, soon we were revisiting the Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs match and the talk, excitement, and speculation intensified as it appeared that The King and The Feminist would face off in the end. We did.
Leading up to the final match, bets were made, the trash talk amped up, and supporters lined up behind each of us. There was a lot at stake, first and foremost our reputation — and like the King-Riggs match — who would reign victorious and end up on top. On a Friday night after work, with beer and pizza for the fans, the day finally came.
Now, I must apologize to you, the reader. As a storyteller and reminiscence-writer, it’s my responsibility to remember the ending of the tale. I don’t. I suspect because I truly don’t remember, I must have lost the final match and denial has protected me from any residual shame for not representing my gender in victory.
What I do remember with crystal clarity, is that while we spent those coffee breaks, ping pong lunches, and Friday night beer and trash talks, I was raising the consciousness of my male coworkers as I shored up my own values and beliefs about equality and feminism.
Me & Billie Jean
Back to Billie Jean King, both the Battle of the Sexes tennis event and the movie by the same title. Warning: Film spoilers follow.
I saw the film, Battle of the Sexes this past Friday. It was thoroughly entertaining, and Emma Stone and Steve Carrell were perfectly cast, credible, and compelling as the two leads, supported by a cast featuring Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, and Elizabeth Shue. Andrea Riseborough plays Marilyn Barnett, King’s hairdresser and lover. The film was directed by the creative team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, who also made Little Miss Sunshine and written by Simon Beaufoy.
Just like Billie Jean, I had married and remained faithful to my first love, my husband, until my feminist awakening created options I never considered earlier in my life. Larry King was Billie Jean’s biggest booster, yet on the women’s tour she had an affair with her woman hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett, which a few years later would be exposed during a palimony suit which Barnett brought against King when she was publicly outed.
In the mid-to-late 1970s I attended, then facilitated CR (Feminist consciousness-raising groups), and soon traveled, first Wisconsin, then the Midwest, and finally the nation, training leaders who founded programs in their communities under the auspices of NOW (the National Organization for Women). Soon my life was populated by women-identified women, lesbian-feminists, and some, like me, who were taking women lovers.
Like Billie Jean, I left my husband and came out as a lesbian, first to myself, then friends and family, and finally my workplace. Unlike Billie Jean, I was not a public figure, or sued by a former lover (or husband), I divorced without drama for the most part, and my ex-husband, who I continue to love, remains a part of my chosen family. Gratefully, I remember the end of this story because it’s important, meaningful, and still unfolding.
See the film Battle of the Sexes and read more about the remarkable life of Billie Jean King and the contributions she made to tennis, women’s sports, and feminism. I also want to acknowledge the sacrifice and tragic ending to Marilyn Barnett’s life.
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