In the fall of 1973 over ninety million viewers watched the “battle of the sexes”, a tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. I’m pretty sure we knew nothing about tennis in my Puerto Rican baseball family. Nevertheless, the match had been the subject of heated discussions for several weeks leading up to the event.
Women outnumber men in our family. There were eight men and fourteen women. Still, the men, my uncles and dad, were powerful figures and the patriarch, my grandfather, whose word was law, and who owned the family businesses where the men worked, wasn’t someone you contradicted or defied. Just like in the press coverage of the match, the conversations at home about the ability of a woman to beat a man at sports, or at anything else, turned into fierce debates.
“If one of you had to give birth to a child you would die,” my mom waved the big silver rice spoon at the men while she cooked their dinner, “por favor!” My aunts nodded in agreement as they set the table and took turns peeking into the living room to gage the reaction of the men who sat watching sports.
“If one of you had to fix the boiler, we’d all be freezing,” shot back an uncle and the men laughed.
The banter continued back and forth until the women were furious. They served Sunday dinner in silence. I felt defensive and protective of them. At that age I didn’t have the women’s lib vocabulary to articulate what I felt or to challenge those who would limit me. I was torn between the affinity I felt with the women in the kitchen and how drawn I was to the powerful men who never had to make dinner or do dishes.
The tense conversations and “battle of the sexes” at home fueled my mom’s courage to learn to drive without my dad’s help. She practiced driving while I rode shotgun, basking in the glory of being the trusted first-born accomplice in this mission of feminine empowerment.
On my 12th birthday she got her license and we went for a spin. As we sat in her car, she handed me a box with my birthday gift, a bracelet, a chic piece of costume jewelry. It was an art deco design made of ivory that opened on a hinge and had a wooden square on top that looked carved into the piece when it wrapped around my wrist. It was unique, so different from the crucifixes on a gold chain or gold bangles worn by every woman in my family.
“You will be a modern girl,” she said, “you will study and have a career and you will not marry young.” I felt the weight of that request. I was part of the next generation, representing Mami and all the women in my family. When we got home she decided to show off her new driving skills by pulling the car into the narrow driveway between our house and the next. Normally, she’d stop in front of the house and let Papi pull the car in. But today, in the spirit of empowerment, of Billie Jean King, and of her dreams for her pre-teen daughter, she would park it herself.
Suddenly she hit the accelerator instead of the brake. Our screams followed the car as it banged against both sides of the driveway over and over, stopping only when it crashed into Papi’s parked car.
Mami banged up the car, but Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs! The battle lines drawn by that match had changed me from a questioning child to an empowered young woman on a mission for equality. That year I became one of the mujeres. Maybe we’d suck at driving, but we could beat men in sports, and we could certainly equal them professionally.
I was a child in that era of Helen Reddy’s song “I am woman hear me roar” (Google it!) I watched the famous Virginia Slims cigarette commercial “you’ve come a long way baby” and was proud that change was coming.
Forty years later I am still proud of the many barriers we’ve broken and the glass ceilings we’ve put cracks in. But the work is not done. Women are still on the defensive in this country and in so many parts of the world. I got to meet Billie Jean King in 2002 at an amazing gathering of women in DC. In a room filled with CEO’s whose mission was to put a woman in the White House, I sat with her and behaved like a groupie telling her how she inspired me. We spoke about Title IX and it’s impact on women’s sports and its importance for girls. The only way we can help girls dream is to show them the end game.
When I told this story to my students at John Jay College in 2015, they were incredulous. They also asked “who won?” So I was thrilled to learn that a movie about Billie Jean King’s historic win will be in theaters this month. It will be great to see the story of a great win for women, even if we missed that White House by a “groundstroke.”