Billie Jean King: A 2016 North Star Award Honoree

Billie Jean King is a sports icon and social justice pioneer,  the founder of the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, and co-founder of World TeamTennis. Since the 1970s, she has been an activist and organizer for equality. As both an elite athlete and an agent for progressive movements, Billie Jean’s leadership has been the catalyst for tremendous change in sports, politics, and culture.

Early in life Billie Jean knew she could use tennis as a platform for equality, but only if she could become the best player in the world. She began her quest for tennis excellence in her hometown of Long Beach, California. By the time she was seventeen years old, Billie Jean had won the first of a record 20 titles at Wimbledon, the first coming when she teamed with Karen Hantze to become the youngest pair to win the Wimbledon women’s doubles title.  

In 1971, with a number of Grand Slam and Wimbledon titles under her belt, Billie Jean became the first female athlete to win more than $100,000 in a year. Though she had achieved personal success, she was keenly aware that other professional women tennis players were paid far less than men. She and other top women players unified as a show of strength, together founding the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973. That same year, the U.S. Open became the first of  four major tournaments to offer equal prize money. A year later, Billie Jean co-founded the Women’s Sports Foundation with $5,000 initial investment, which came from a check she received from the Gillette Cavalcade of Stars. The organization has grown over the years to advance the lives of women and girls through sports and physical activity.

Billie Jean is masterful when it comes to maximizing opportunities to shine a light on inequality. Such was the case when Bobby Riggs sought to prove that women were inferior to men by challenging her to a tennis match called “The Battle of the Sexes" in 1973. Hoping to change the hearts and minds of people to more closely match the legislation of Title IX (which had been passed by Congress in 1972) she agreed to play Riggs and defeated him in straight sets as 50 million people tuned in to watch the television broadcast. Gloria Steinam said, “She changed consciousness with that one match.” 

In 1977, Billie Jean joined Bella Abzug and scores of other feminist leaders at the First National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas. She literally carried the torch for a multitude of social justice issues including equal pay, reproductive rights, gay and lesbian rights, and racial equality, inspiring a generation of activists to fight for equality. Since then, she has leveraged her celebrity to bring attention to a number of issues. She has been a champion of LGBTQ rights, encouraging sexual and gender minorities to be their authentic selves. Additionally, Billie Jean has been an advocate of paid family leave and improved healthcare for underserved communities.

Billie Jean is a 2009 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, and was named by Life Magazine as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century. She lends her time, talent, and philanthropic efforts to many organizations, including sitting on the boards of the Women's Sports Foundation and Elton John AIDS Foundation. Countless groups have honored and awarded her including the Public Justice Foundation, International Tennis Hall of Fame, GLAAD and National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame. She is a member of the President’s Council for Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition, and was a member of the official U.S. delegation to the 2012 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

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