The world of sports has long been a contested playing field for social change. When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball in 1947, it was widely assumed that other heroic male athletes would follow in subsequent sports. So, when Althea Gibson—a young woman who grew up in Harlem playing paddle tennis—became the first Black athlete to win a major title in 1956, she shocked the tennis world. Women’s history in sports has in fact been a long series of shocks that have reshaped the world of athletics as well as the possibilities that exist for women everywhere.
On today’s episode, we discuss the lives, careers, and lasting legacies on and off the tennis courts of two great women athletes—Althea Gibson and Billie Jean King.
First, we welcomed Ashley Brown, the author of Serving Herself: The Life and Times of Althea Gibson, to speak about the barrier breaking tennis player and golfer. We then interviewed Susan Ware, the author of American Women: A Concise History, American Women’s History: A Very Short Introduction,and Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports, published by UNC Press. Susan shared with us some background on how King leveraged her career as a form of activism for gender equality and discussed how sports have changed for women athletes in the years since.
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You can read the introduction from Ashley Brown’s book, Serving Herself, which explores how gender and sexuality were essential aspects to her history of integration.
Don’t miss this interview with Ashley Brown with a deeper discussion of why she chose to write about Gibson’s life.
To learn more about the Black women athletes who broke barriers in tennis, explore the Oxford African American Studies Center profiles of Althea Gibson, Zinna Garrison, Venus Williams, and Serena Williams.
Learn how Billie Jean King was the right woman at the right moment in American history, in the introduction to Susan Ware’s Game, Set, Match.
You can also learn more about the 20th century women’s movement in this chapter, “Modern American Women, 1920 to the present”, from Susan Ware’s American Women’s History
Featured image: Althea Gibson, half-length portrait, holding tennis racquet. Photograph by Fred Palumbo, 1956. Library of Congress, CC0 via Unsplash.
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