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Billie Jean King Relives Her Historic Dollar Rebellion for Women

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For International Women's Day, learn how this lesbian icon took a stand for fair pay over 50 years ago.

Everyone's an influencer, says the legendary Billie Jean King, borrowing the term appropriated by social media users. With 50-plus years of activism that effectively altered sports for women, she would know.

The story of how Billie Jean King and the Original 9 tennis players fought for equal footing and prize money for women in tennis has been told a few times, like in the 2017 film Battle of the Sexes. But with the Original 9 becoming the first group nominated for the International Tennis Hall of Fame in the organization's history (the inductees had not been announced at the time of publication), it was the perfect moment for King to tell their story. In the Audible Original The Dollar Rebellion she shares the inspiration behind that historic 1970 photo of nine women's tennis players each holding up a one-dollar bill, the amount of their contracts to strike out on their own in professional tennis when they realized they were being paid a fraction of what the men made.

In the 100-plus-minute piece, the tennis champion and LGBTQ+ icon takes the listener on a journey through the tennis world while peppering her story with inspirational bon mots along the way.

"I have this saying that pressure's a privilege, and champions adjust," King told The Advocate about how she and her wife Ilana Kloss were faring during the pandemic." I remember saying to Ilana, "If 'champions' ever was important, this is the moment.' Champions in life. I don't mean champion athletes."

With the grace under pressure for which she is known, King recorded The Dollar Rebellion. She begins with her childhood growing up in Long Beach, Calif., and her eventual entree into tennis, a sport she loved but soon realized was not created equal for all. That realization came early when she looked around at those in her sport and realized all she saw were white people.

"Where's everybody else?" she asked of herself. Thus began a life of activism.

The Dollar Rebellion's story centers around how King, along with Peaches Bartkowicz, Rosie Casals, Julie Heldman, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Judy Tegart Dalton, and Kerry Melville Reid strove for pay commensurate with the men when tennis went pro in 1968. In 1970, Billie Jean King was awarded $600 for winning the Italian Open while her male counterpart made six times more than she did at $3,500.

That year, with the help of World Tennis publisher Gladys Heldman and backing from Phillip Morris CEO Joe Cullman, they kicked off the Virginia Slims Tour.

King enumerated the reasons she and the Original 9 took the leap more than 50 years ago that changed tennis for the better for those who came after.

"Any girl born in this world, if she's good enough, will have a place to compete. Number two, she'll finally be appreciated for her accomplishments, not just her looks. And number three, and very important to us after getting $14 a day for a long time in the amateur days, is to be able to make a living at something you love," King said.

"When you see Black Lives Matter. When you see our LGBTQI [community], I hope this story can help somebody else, whatever they're interested in, whoever they are, it will help them have the courage to do what they want, believe in themselves, and maybe they'll start another moment in something else," she said.

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