Anyone who looks at the date of this post — even years later — is probably going to know exactly what kind of horrible week this was for women. Even being old enough to have watched the Anita Hill testimony unfold, I can’t remember a week like this where it felt like a certain segment of America, that segment that seems to run everything, was telling women loud and clear: “You don’t matter.” Many writers are dissecting exactly what’s happening. Many more accounts will come over the years. I probably won’t add to that body of writing. Since this blog is mostly a politics-free zone, I’d like to talk about two earlier battles of the sexes, funnier ones, and instances where the women kicked ass, but not in the way you might think. I’m qualified. I have a one or two degree of separation from it.
But, first, walk don’t run to your Netflix or Amazon account and rent Battle of the Sexes about how Billie Jean King and a group of women tennis players rebelled against unfair treatment and formed their own tournament. Of course, it also culminates with the great match between King and Bobby Riggs. The movie juxtaposes the story of an athletically fierce but emotionally vulnerable Billie Jean finding her sexuality and herself against the story of a sometimes pathetic Bobby Riggs, an aging athlete struggling with a gambling addiction and the diminishing opportunity to get the drug-like rush of winning.
But here’s my connection:
Several years after the historic King-Riggs match, I was at Mount Holyoke College — which, in case you don’t know — is a famous women’s college, the first founded of the Seven Sisters. At the time, we had an amazing basketball team, many members of which were living in my dorm. Let’s just pause here and let me tell you what the “jocks” were like at a women’s college compared to…oh say… the teams Brett Kavanaugh was on. And the difference wasn’t just that they didn’t go around sexually assaulting people. I vividly remember one night after they’d won an important match. The team came tumbling into the dorm laughing and singing Queen’s “We Are the Champions”. The team was running around hugging everyone as if their athletic achievement was something they wanted to share with all the rest of us. As if their win was our win. I remember jumping up and down with all these tall women as if, at 5’2″, I’d sunk that winning basket.
So shortly after that, the Bobby Riggs circus came to that part of Western Massachusetts. The co-captains of our basketball team, Carolyn and Pam, were invited to play Riggs in a series of challenges. Speaking through email with Pam recently, I asked her if it was because the team was so good that year. She said she honestly thinks they were picked simply because Mount Holyoke was the college closest to the mall that was the venue.
Anyway, the contest or whatever you want to call it was, in Pam’s words, “totally Rigged”. I do like to think that Bobby, despite engineering a faked contest to beat two non-professional athletes, was a little non-plussed when in walked Carolyn, an amazing athlete, and Pam, a 6’1″ blonde glamazon. But I’ll let Pam tell you about it:
“What was the contest? I think I remember there was a basketball throwing contest… there was ping pong playing, free throw shooting and some other weird thing. It was all “Rigged”. For ping pong all his shots were “spinners”. He’d flick the ball off his paddle and it would hit just barely over the net on your side of the table then instantly bounce back across to his side…you had NO CHANCE of reaching it so far up at that net — even I couldn’t reach that far! And if you went to the side, well, you were toast down the other side of the table. He laughed, caviled and mocked us, strutted and preened and we stood there like well-educated, well-behaved young women who played sports and went through life playing by the rules. Rules which he seemed to make up as he went along — whatever would give him an advantage and the glory of being able to claim his big impressive “victory” over two college girls he’d tricked at ping-pong and free throws (basket at different height, angled, ball very small and hard, different, blah blah blah but THAT one hurt!!!)”
Pam also remembers that Bobby wasn’t exactly someone you wanted to get close to. Although she did for this picture.
I’m trusting Pam on this one, although I was surprised to learn that Billie Jean King remained friends with Riggs for the rest of his life. She was one of the last people to speak with him before he died, telling him that she loved him. If Battle of the Sexes is anything to go by, he did have a certain hustler’s charm. And Billie Jean, as a top athlete, may have best understood how devastating it is to face giving up that spotlight when the winning stops and the body can no longer perform at peak.
Ultimately, Riggs does come across as a pathetic figure. While Billie Jean went on change sports for women forever. And Pam and Carolyn found that their sports experience, instead of limiting them, has informed their very successful lives. Because unlike jocks such as Brett Kavanaugh who used sports as a vehicle for bullying or Riggs who desperately clung to it like a drug, athletics, for our fearless Mount Holyoke basketball players, actually gave all those life lessons that the sports movies promise it will.
“…we were a TEAM that worked together with no showboating and no stars. A true team. It was great. A great life lesson in what you can accomplish if you work together even if you don’t share the same POV about how to get to the goal. Compromise and communication. It worked. One of the forwards a year younger than I took things MUCH more seriously and did not like my more playful style on the court during practice. This did create some issues at the beginning of one season. I went to talk to the coach about her constant grumping. I told the coach “I’m trying to keep things light because I don’t want the weaker players to get discouraged and I want to keep everyone positive so we have good practices and get better and win games. That’s my goal.” The coach’s response was a learning moment. He said “That’s Jill’s goal, too. You both just go about it differently.” Duh. I’d never considered that. We ACTUALLY were not at odds! Would that some other people we are forced to watch on TV news daily appreciated that there are many paths to the same goal, and they should cut this internecine drama OUT. SPORTS as life metaphor. Indeed.”
I should note that our team of heroines were no strangers to a few stunts of their own. On the day before a key tournament game with our arch-rival Smith College, they dressed as spies and armed with fake noses and disguises, sat in the bleachers ostentatiously scribbling notes as if they were using espionage to ferret out their rivals “secret plays”.
The point of the story? Maybe it’s just that women do things differently. And maybe it’s a better way. After thousands of years doing things the Man Way, maybe it’s time to give the ball to women and let them sink the shots.
Let’s let Pam have the last word:
“Those of us who enjoy sports, running and biking and swimming and rowing and throwing and being outdoors and swinging a club or bat or stick or racquet —which is where this all started!!!—sure owe the great times we have as weekend athletes and amateur golfers, tennis players, bikers, club competitors, enterers of fundraising tournaments and the fun hitting a tennis ball with a niece —well, that’s thanks in some measure to Billie Jean King.
If nothing else, she did make us all wake up in some way to women as athletes. That women in sports can be competitive and can be fun. That women deserve decent facilities and equal pay. Kinda like the way it should be in the real world.
Bille Jean King for president!”