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On 50th anniversary of Billie Jean King’s ‘Battle of the Sexes’ win, a push to honour her in Congress

Billie Jean King’s victory in the “Battle of the Sexes” was a milestone moment as women pushed for equality on the playing field and beyond.

On the 50th anniversary of that match against Bobby Riggs — still the most-watched in tennis history — King moved toward becoming the first female individual athlete to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

Three U.S. senators introduced a bill Wednesday that would award the honor to King, the tennis Hall of Famer and activist who was a driving force behind the creation of the women’s pro tour, equal prize money for men and women, and the passage of Title IX.

“She’s both a role model for women and girls everywhere, but she’s also a battle-tested warrior for women’s rights and equality,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, one of the bill’s leaders in the Senate along with Sens. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

King already has celebrated the 50th anniversaries this year of the WTA Tour and the U.S. Open becoming the first tournament to award equal prize money to its men’s and women’s champions. On Sept. 20, 1973, she faced Riggs, the former No. 1-ranked men’s player who boasted he could beat any women’s player.

King’s 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory at the Astrodome in Houston was seen by an estimated 90 million people, with King realizing the damage that could be done if those tuning in saw a man who was then 55 beat a top woman.

“This match was about much more than tennis. It was about social change,” King wrote Tuesday on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

It’s one of the reasons Gillibrand believes the gold medal, awarded by Congress for distinguished achievements and contributions to society, is proper recognition for King. It previously has been given to athletes such as baseball players Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente, and golfers Jack Nicklaus, Byron Nelson and Arnold Palmer.

“I think it’s important for women and girls to know that the playing field has not been level for a very long time, but that there are champions and advocates who have been fighting on their behalf for generations to get that playing field leveled,” Gillibrand said.

She believes the bill will receive enough support for the two-thirds needed in the Senate, and the same majority in the House of Representatives, where the companion bill is led by Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey and currently has more than 80 cosponsors, according to the U.S. Tennis Association.

Gillibrand hopes it can be accomplished before the end of the year.

“We still have never had a woman president, we have very few women governors, we still only have 20% of women in Congress,” she said. “So we have a long way to go, but champions like Billie Jean give us hope that through fighting, through effort, through advocacy, we can reach these milestones of equality.”

Credit: AP

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