For Women’s Month, Jessica asked me to think about women who have influenced me or who I have admired. There are so many women that come to mind, from my own mother to my current colleagues and friends. At that same time, Us women-folk make up half of the population, so finding someone to admire isn’t incredibly difficult. Her question got me thinking back to my childhood and two women who shared infamy for me and many others in the early 1970’s.
In 1972, Billie Jean King was ranked #1 in women’s tennis and Shirley Chisholm ran for president. The next year Billie Jean was challenged to play a tennis match by a loud-mouthed self-described sexist named Bobby Riggs. When I think about 9-year-old me, I instantly imagine both of them as women I aspired to be. Shirley Chisholm’s unwavering belief in empowering people and Billie Jean King’s speed and power on the court. They were blazing different trails while changing the notion of what a woman could do.
I was the only person in my house who took Shirley Chisholm seriously. I knew she was climbing uphill in her run for president. But she was clearly too determined, smart and serious to be a joke. Shirley Chisholm for President of the United States. She was thwarted at every turn, and yet she persisted. Only allowed onstage for one debate, she still kept going. I quietly perked up when I heard her name on the news and Shirley Chisholm for President of the United States was filed away in my brain under possibility.
The next year, Billie Jean played Bobby Riggs in what was promoted as “The Battle of the Sexes”. It was a hot topic in our house. My mother was not a fan of my tennis idol. I think she may have seen some similarities between her daughter and the not-yet-out-of-the-closet tennis star. My father, on the other hand, loved her. He also understood the limitations of Bobby’s 55-year-old body, and declared: “She’s gonna kill him.” Billie Jean didn’t actually kill him… but she did win along with what I later realized was the weight of every nine-year-old little girl in America on her shoulders.
Thinking back to my idols, I could have written about Julia Child or any women of the kitchen who I admire, but these two inspired me before I ever hit the kitchen. Shirley and Billie Jean had a kind of determination I had not seen played out in public. Shirley and Billie Jean pop up in my thoughts quite often. I am awed by their perseverance and resilience. So, from this former nine-year-old to Shirley Chisholm and Billie Jean King, I say thank you for being the bad asses who showed me the way. Happy Women’s History Month.
PS. Women’s Month is every month at Bite Society!