Monday, January 16, 2012

Role Model - Billie Jean King

Who were your childhood heroes? Who did you look to for inspiration and hope for your own future?

I grew up in the 70s, when the women around me were expanding their consciousnesses, pushing boundaries, and broadening the world of imagination and expectations for girls and young women.

One of the things I remembered was the talk about Billie Jean King and her Battle of the Sexes with Bobby Riggs. I was only 3 when it took place, but it had a lasting effect on how women in sports were treated. At least in my world. And, as such, she was always someone I could point to as doing what she wanted anyway, what needed to be done, even when the odds were against her, even when it was hard work, even when there was no guarantee of success.

So, when I saw an announcement saying Billie Jean King was coming to speak at the Charles M. Schultz Museum, I had to make a point to go hear her. I wasn't disappointed! She's on tour to promote her new book, Pressure is a Privilege.


She was asked to speak here because of her long-time friendship with Charles "Sparky" Schultz. She talked about her life experience, her challenges, her goals and inspirations. But she also spoke, with such kindness and love, about the time she spent chatting and playing tennis with the creator of so many great female comic characters.
The talk was held in the indoor tennis court that she and Sparky played tennis together.  It was great walking into that space and seeing all the women and girls there to listen to this legend.

Before her interview, we got to see this clip, put together by Time, Inc. Great piece showing her impact. It brought tears to my eyes. 

The talk itself was quite inspiring as well.

It was great to hear her talk about her early life, as a very active child. Her parents encouraged her to participate in any and all sports activities, regardless of whether she was any good at them. She talked about playing softball, basketball, and even girls' league football. She told about how, when she was 10 or so, her mother made her quit playing some of the more rough and tumble sports because she wanted her to "be a lady." In response to which she asked her mother, "What does that mean, 'be a lady?'" That got a lot of laughs from the audience.

In the 5th grade, her friend asked her if she wanted to play tennis. She didn't even know what tennis was. She was sold when her friend said, "You get to run, jump and hit a ball." Within weeks, she was practicing and taking instruction five days a week, and had the revelation that this was what she was supposed to do in her life. She was so excited, she announced it to her mother in the car on the way home from practice, "I'm going to be the number one tennis player in the world."

By the age of 12, she was playing matches in larger venues, and by the age of 15, she was already on the tour.

In college, she had to work two jobs to pay her way, even though male tennis stars were on full scholarship. If you ever needed a reminder of why Title IX is so important, just think of that. She said it was that realization that lead her to push for more equality in sports and in politics.

She was responsible for pushing for professional status for tennis players, and for trying to equalize the prize purses for male and female winners. When she started, the prizes for men championships was nearly 12 times as large as the prizes for the women. In fact, she said, even with all her hard effort, it wasn't until 2007 that both the men's and women's champions got the same amount.

She says she wasn't a born leader, but that because of her drive and determination, her friends often pushed her into that position. She would see a problem, and start talking to others about it, and eventually figure out that if something was going to change, she would "have to go do it."

When asked what she though was the important factor in her success, she credited her study of history. "The more you know about history, the more you know about yourself." She said it helped her to know where she came from, and where she was going, and what her role would be in the passing of the torch.

When asked what advice she had for others, and especially for youngsters starting out in life, she said, "Everyday, influence yourself and someone else." She stressed the importance of staying positive, even in the face of life's challenges. In fact, she specifically used the word "challenge" as opposed to "problem."

She also talked about the top three things one needs to be successful in life. She stressed the importance of cultivating a sense of curiosity and the importance of continuing to learn throughout life. She emphasized the impact of value of good relationships, and included in that the relationship with oneself, which this SRP can get behind! And she encouraged everyone to be a problem-solver in their daily life. Good advice for anyone.

Finally, she was asked what she thought was the most important thing for improving the future prospects for girls and young women, and she said that we needed to see more women in positions of power. She reiterated what feminists have been saying for years, "You have to see it to be it." As humans, we have a hard time imagining we can be or do anything until we see it. When we see a woman as a CEO, or a champion, or president, then we can dream about doing that too.

After the talk, we got to line up and spend a minute or two talking with her and getting a handshake. These girls were at the front of the line, and it was so awesome to see them talking with this legend from my own childhood. When asked what they aspired to in life, she leaned in close to hear them, and asked one girl to speak up so "we can hear it in your own voice." How cool is that?

I was too tongue-tied to say much, but had to at least shake her hand. She also gave me a fist bump too, which was pretty cool.


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