If Kristy Pigeon’s father had had his way, she certainly would not have been a tennis player. She would have spent her youth as a cheerleader with ample angora sweatshirts and then in college her priority would have been the pursuit of her future husband, of her future breadwinner.
“That’s just another indication of how men viewed women back 50 years ago,” Pigeon says in a phone interview. “I was teased when I would jog and be training for tennis. In high school … people thought it was not very attractive for women to want to pursue a sport.”
Instead, Pigeon became one of the Original 9 – the group of female tennis players who boycotted and broke away from the male-dominant structures of international tennis on 23 September 1970. This week marks 50 years since Pigeon – along with Judy Tegart Dalton, Julie Heldman, Peaches Bartkowicz, Rosie Casals, Kerry Melville, Nancy Richey, Valerie Ziegenfuss and Billie Jean King – set women’s tennis on the unique path to becoming the biggest sport in the world for their sex.
Inequality had long been soldered into the structures of tennis, but 1968 marked the dawn of the open era as professionals competed alongside amateurs in major tournaments for the first time and women’s events rapidly lost their value. “For the first eight months there was a total of $5,000 in prize money for the women,” says Julie Heldman. “There weren’t enough tournaments for women to play and, with men, there was truly institutional sexism going on: ‘People won’t buy tickets to see women.’”
As discontent stirred, in August 1970 Jack Kramer, a former No 1 player and the promoter of the Pacific Southwest tournament, announced the men’s winner would earn $12,500 and the women’s only $1,500. Appalled, female players convened at the US Open and they emerged with Gladys Heldman, editor of World Tennis Magazine and one of the most influential women in tennis, as leader.
Heldman decided to host an eight-woman invitation tournament to coincide with the Pacific Southwest, simultaneously offering a fuller prize-money purse and boycotting the other event. “Each one of us at Houston was committed to the rebellion,” says Julie Heldman, Gladys’s daughter. “From the beginning there was this crazy group of women, who were all fine tennis players, who believed in standing up for something.”
Their commitment was certainly to be tested. Shortly before the tournament began they each received calls from Stan Malless, the chairman of the sanctions committee at the United States Lawn Tennis Association (now the USTA), threatening suspension to any player who competed in the unsanctioned event. They defied those threats and, in order to wrestle players from the USLTA’s clutches, Gladys Heldman offered them a one-week $1 deal so that all of them would become contract professionals for the week.
“I figured that if I did get suspended, for me personally, I could just go back and focus on my studies for a while until things died down and I would continue to make my statement and say: ‘Well, this isn’t right. We need to change this. Let’s move forward.’ To me, there was never a decision,” says Pigeon.
The consequences were far more swift for the two Australian players, Dalton and Melville. Tennis Australia immediately refused to recognise them as players and deemed them ineligible to represent Australia. Only at the French Open in 1971 did the International Lawn Tennis Association (now the ITF) allow her to rejoin major competition.
“We couldn’t do anything,” says Dalton. “They wouldn’t let us play in any tournaments New Zealand said we could play in Auckland, then the ILTF said they wanted to ban New Zealand..”
Dalton reached the final of the new tournament before losing against Rosie Casals and the event was a success softening the tournament sponsor, Virginia Slims cigarettes, which was owned by the tobacco behemoth Philip Morris, to the possibility of a full circuit. The players voted for Gladys Heldman to continue to lead them.
“I refer to it as the holy trinity,” says Julie Heldman. “My mother was the organising person who got the players, who got the promoters who got the sponsors, who made things happen. There was Billie Jean King, who was the charismatic champion who was great with the press and so people came to watch her. And then my mother brought in Joe Cullman, CEO of Philip Morris. It was a fledgling tour.”
Thus began the Virginia Slims Tour in 1971, initially an eight-tournament circuit which marked the first women-only tour. Philip Morris packaged the tour with a slick marketing veneer and the image of strong, confident athletes deeply contrasted with how people viewed women in regular life.
“We’re talking about a different era,” says Julie Heldman, “We’re talking little housewife at home. We’re talking even the men tennis players at the time, who were really, genuinely good people, had this institutionalised misogyny. Arthur Ashe, who later said: ‘Oh boy was I wrong,’ his view was that there should not be any money for women players. Men get married and men should be supporting their wives.”
They would spend much of their time promoting women’s tennis, which also meant promoting the concept of women playing competitive sports. “We tried to get on TV, morning programs,” says Dalton. “We ran women’s tennis clinics. We went into shopping malls and supermarkets and in the malls, we tried to sell tickets for the matches. I think that’s why our camaraderie is so, so strong 50 years later.”
College allowed Pigeon to see her actions in the global context of women’s liberation but for most players that awakening came later. Julie Heldman says: “Women from other ways of life would tell us that we were their heroes. So from the beginning there were noises and after a while, quite a number of us became very committed to feminism or women’s lib.”
The Virginia Slims Circuit provided the platform for the formation of the WTA, which has risen to the structures of today. An obvious point: last year, 49 years after the players posed with $1 contracts for the world to see, Ashleigh Barty won the record tennis prize of $4.42m at the WTA Finals in Shenzhen.
It is difficult not to wonder what position women’s tennis would be in had Gladys Heldman and the female players not taken their power so soon into the professional era of tennis.
“There was no single moment in time where what we did became significant,” says Pigeon. “I think where it really became significant is today because when you look back on women’s sports over the last 50 years for other sports such as golf and especially soccer. You can note that today other women’s sports still do not have equal prize money with their male counterparts, whereas we accomplished that 50 years ago.”
Heldman concurs. “The other women’s sports haven’t had the great fortune of having what we had, with one promoter who was so willing to put it all together. I think one of the difficulties is that they’re stuck under men’s associations. But how do they get out from under?”