Billie Jean King, Tennis Champion & Activist

Why She’s a MAKER: She has claimed 39 Grand Slam titles, but her biggest career wins have been in gender equality. When male tennis players started talking about forming an association in the ‘60s, “I went to them and said you’re going to include the women, right? And they said…get lost basically.” Instead, King rallied female players to form the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973. “That was the birth of women’s professional tennis. Our goal was to let any girl born in the world to know there’s a place for her to play and make a living.”

Mind the Pay Gap: From the moment the Long Beach, Calif., native picked up her first racket, she knew “I found out what I’m going to do with my life.” By age 23, King was the top ranked women’s tennis player in the world, having won both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. But when women started earning prize money at major tournaments in 1968, King received a backhand she wasn’t expecting: Her winnings amounted to less than 40 percent of the men’s champion at Wimbledon. “It didn’t even dawn on me that we would get less!”

Battle of the Sexes: In 1973, former men’s champion Bobby Riggs issued a challenge to top female tennis players to serve up their best game on the court. “I started thinking about society and women and what this might mean,” King says. “I knew I had to play—and I knew I had to win.” With an estimated 50 million people spanning 37 countries tuned into the much-anticipated match, King took down Riggs—and the stereotypes that women aren’t as athletic as men—in three straight sets. “It wasn’t about tennis. It was about history. It was about social change.”

Game, Set, Mission: When she starting playing tournaments at 12 years old, she recalls everything about tennis being white--the clothes, the shoes, the tennis balls, not to mention the players. “Where is everybody else?” she asked herself. From then on, she made it her mission to fight for equal rights and opportunities for men and women on and off the court. “When you oppress people, either by gender or by race or sexual orientation—when you do that and the doors become ajar, they will fly open and they will come. And they have.”