Technically the law passed on June 23, 1972 prohibited “the discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.” The official name for the law was Title IX.
More notably, it’s known as the law that triggered the growth of women’s sports, a ruling that opened the door for female athletes to receive athletic scholarships.
But of all the sports, none did more to thoroughly legitimize the idea of women as athletes than tennis. Just this past Thursday, Billie Jean King and friends of the Women’s Sports Foundation – an organization founded by King in 1974 – marked the occasion at the New York Historical Society.
King, of course, was front and center as the star player of the first full-fledged women’s professional tour, more formally known as the Virginia Slims Circuit. Eight other players were present at the creation of this tour: Americans Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Julie Heldman, Kristy Pigeon, Peaches Bartkowicz, Valerie Ziegenfuss; Australians Judy Tegart Dalton and Kerry Melville Reid. Such were the times that each of these athletes risked being banned by their national associations – and, by extension, denied the chance to compete at such prestigious events as Wimbledon, Roland Garros and the US Open. But the women dubbed the “Original Nine” hung tough – including hours giving the kind of access to media, sponsors and fans rarely seen since – and in time, the tour had succeeded.
But how did Virginia Slims make its way to tennis? The hero behind that tale was not a professional tennis player, but a tennis zealot and activist of the first order named Gladys Heldman. The wife of a former National 18s champion named Julius Heldman, she’d started the game late and became a fine player in her own right. In 1953, Gladys started World Tennis, a magazine that rapidly became the sport’s bible, a showcase for everything from tournament results and player portraits to Heldman’s highly informed and persistent brand of editorializing. Gladys was an unsurpassed writer, schmoozer and entrepreneur. Tennis folk such as Jack Kramer held her mind in the highest regard.
Throughout the ‘60s, Heldman became very close with Joseph Cullman, CEO of Philip Morris. During that decade, as women began to assert themselves, Philip Morris in 1968 introduced a new cigarette aimed at women named Virginia Slims. The cigarette’s ad slogan: “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby.” Here is one typical commercial.
But then came a twist that changed the history of sports. In 1970, Congress passed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act. Effective January 2, 1971, cigarette advertisements would be banned from radio and television. As it happened, the last televised cigarette ad was for Virginia Slims:
But how was Philip Morris to market its brand? In the fall of 1970, Heldman asked Cullman for $5,000 – prize money for a tournament in Houston she would run for those nine players. The tournament was a success. Rapidly, many of those dollars previously ear-marked for broadcast advertising went to support the women’s pro tour.
And the slogan endured – in print ads, as well as in such Virginia Slims-flavored videos as this one about the 1973 US Open:
All of these events drastically raised the profile and credibility of women’s sports. In 1971, King became the first women’s professional athlete to earn $100,000 in a calendar year – this at a time when a six-figure salary was a major feat for any athlete. So notable was King’s achievement that she received a congratulatory phone call from President Richard Nixon. Two years later came the creation of the WTA – not the tour, but a player’s association -- and King’s infamous “Battle of the Sexes” victory over Bobby Riggs.
But in large part, much that brought Title IX to life had all started with a twist of legislation, the hunger of “Original Nine” and the enterprising spirit of Gladys Heldman.