This post is sponsored by HBO and Gentleman Jack.
Billie Jean King will go down as one of the greatest tennis players — one of the greatest athletes, actually — of all time. 39 Grand Slam titles. 20 Wimbledon victories. And, of course, her Battle of the Sexes win over Bobby Riggs, which sold out the Astrodome and was viewed by more than 90 million people. “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match” King later said. “It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.” Instead it did quite the opposite: It legitimized women’s tennis, and more broadly, it brought essential positive attention to women’s sports and the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s. Perfect timing, really, as King had just founded the Women’s Tennis Association because the two professional tennis circuits at the time refused to give women tennis players equal pay or prize money compared to male players. In fact, in 1973, the year of the Battle of the Sexes, a woman couldn’t even get a credit card without her husband or father or another male family member signing off on it.
One of the common themes of our Gentleman Jack-sponsored #WomenCrushWednesday series so far has been: The fights our modern LGBTQ trailblazers are winning are fights Anne Lister was engaged with almost 200 years ago. And Billie Jean King’s is no different.
In Anne Lister’s lifetime, there were very few women landowners because a woman’s property was surrendered to her husband at the time of their marriage and she ceased to exist as a legal entity of her own. Land and homes passed from male heirs to male heirs. Lister was in a unique position: Her uncle owned Shibden Hall, in York, and had no sons or nephews to leave it to. “He has no high opinion of ladies,” Anne wrote about him in her diary — but he did have a high opinion of Anne, who had a great mind for finance, the physical strength and desire to work alongside the men on the estate, and absolutely no inclination to marry a man (and therefore surrender Shibden to him). In fact, both Anne’s aunt and uncle knew she preferred the company of women, and they encouraged it.
When Anne’s longtime romantic partner, Mariana Belcombe, announced her plan to marry a man because she needed financial security, Anne pleaded with her uncle to leave all of Shibden Hall to her. Without her own living, she would never be able to live out her dreams of traveling or finding a woman to settle down with. Her uncle agreed, and upon the death of him and Anne’s father, she became the sole owner of the estate.
Even so, she met with mountains of resistance from wealthy male businessmen and bankers — as well as attempts at exploitation and theft — when it came to mining the coal on her property. But she persisted and even, against all advice and thoughts of modern feminine decorum, descended into her mines more than once. “I came up dirty and delighted,” she wrote.
The kind of intimidation and scare tactics men used against Lister were the same ones they used against Billie Jean King two centuries later when she decided to start the WTA. Women were too weak to do the jobs men could do. No one would invest in a woman-run businesses. She’d lose the respect of the people who supported her. She’d overplay her hand and be left with nothing. King refused to capitulate. She believed, more than anything, in the power of her own strength and determination. Without money, there was no power; and without power there was no opportunity for women, no choices. King convinced eight women to join her. Nine women on the original WTA. Today it is the principal organizing body of women’s professional tennis with over 2,500 players from 100 countries who have earned over $146 million in prize money.
Anne Lister was an athlete, too. People always forget that. She beat her brothers at every sport. She walked everywhere. She was the first woman to ascend Mount Perdu, and the first person, period, to scale Mount Vignemale. It’s no 700-win (81.76%) singles record — but maybe that’s because lawn tennis hadn’t been invented yet.