In 1972, I was a 10-year-old dreaming of being the next Billie Jean King as I headed off during the summer to my local public park courts to hone my skills. While I loved playing tennis and idolized Billie Jean King for her tenacity and love of the game, little did I know then what profound effects her life’s work would have on me. When I think of the historic moment of celebrating 50 years of Title IX, it is Billie Jean King who rises to the top of my “she-ro” list. Growing up with four brothers before my first sister came along, I was painfully aware from an early age that opportunities for boys were not always the same afforded to girls. Opportunity is a key word because when given an equal playing field, I have always believed women can achieve the same as men (and often achieve even more).
I experienced how boys felt about girls playing basketball firsthand on the local playground with my brother’s friends. The first few times sides were chosen, I was the last one picked. I wasn’t picked last because I did not have game, but because the prevailing attitude was “girls were not as good as boys.” The third time around my brother said to his friends, “I’d pick my sister first if you want to win.” Brother, thanks for always believing girls could play just as hard as boys and for raising three champion daughters and teaching your son lessons of equality.
Sports taught me how to be a leader on and off the court, not just as a team captain but as a point guard calling the plays in basketball, on the tennis court accepting victory and defeat with grace, as a utility player on the softball field willing to take on the challenge of laying down a suicide squeeze bunt to win a game. For me, it is Billie Jean King’s leadership on standing for equal rights and equal pay that stand out for me as I reflect on the importance of fifty years of Title IX.
It has also been her voice for LGBTQ rights, the #MeToo Movement, and for her recognition that Title IX also protects women from harassment, ensuring our college campuses need to protect students from sexual harassment and providing equal opportunities to athletic scholarships.
In her latest autobiography, All In, King writes:
Women also have to fight people’s tendencies to tell us when we do lead or succeed, “Thanks for what you do for women.” We never limit male leaders by telling then, “Thanks for what you do for men.” This double standard has to stop. Any time women are discounted as if we’re only representing half the population, it also consigns us to less of the marketplace, fewer opportunities, less money, less influence, and so on. We are never going to fulfill our potential until people realize that when women lead, we lead for everyone. When I fight for equality, I fight for everyone. If I see guys getting a raw deal, I fight to lift them too. (King 380-381)
If ever there was a modern-day equivalent of Billie Jean King championing Title IX rights, that person would be Chicago Sky player Candace Parker. A true champion and history maker on and off the court. A voice for today’s 10-year-old girls. For a quick history lesson on Title IX given by Parker, check out her TBS special titled, Title IX: 37 Words That Changed America.
At the end of her book, All In, King poses a few questions for readers to imagine themselves at the end of their lives. One of these questions is, “What will you want to say that you stood for, and did with your life?”
My answer is simple, I was a playmaker for equity.
Paula Hanley is a Senior Partnerships Manager for the Partnership for College Completion.