On Aug. 12, tennis legend Billie Jean King was duly recognized for her role as a game-changer of history.

This is the day President Obama bestowed on her the Medal of Freedom.

During King’s best playing years — from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s — tennis was the biggest venue for women’s sports. And Wimbledon was, without a doubt, the biggest stage and the most sacred institution of tennis.

Wimbledon was not, however, a bastion of feminism.

Female players like Billie Jean King were required to curtsy in all-white miniskirted outfits. Even more archaically, the names of married women were referenced on the scoreboard by the first and last names of their husbands — in Billie Jean’s case: Mrs. L. King.

Yet this was the place that launched King into the global spotlight, and ultimately gave birth to one of the most public pioneers of gay rights, feminism, pay equity and social justice.

Billie Jean King wasn’t the most physically gifted athlete, but her fluid and graceful serve-and-volley style — a lost art in today’s power game — was mesmerizing to watch.

Her most formidable weapon wasn’t a serve or drop shot, however. King possessed a deeply confident and strategic mind, matched by a commitment to excellence that eventually won her 39 grand slam titles, including a record 20 at Wimbledon.

That would be enough of a legacy for some, but King’s most memorable battles were not fought on the tennis court. She lived as an out lesbian before it was remotely fashionable to do so.

She fought for equal pay for women athletes, and by extension, women in general.

She and eight other players broke away from the tennis establishment, and under King’s leadership, the Virginia Slims women’s tennis tour and the Women’s Tennis Association were born.

Most famously, King beat down a larger-than-life symbol of sexism, or what we referred to then as a male chauvinist pig who went by the name of Bobby Riggs.

The 55-year-old Riggs loudly argued — and many agreed — that women athletes were so inferior that he would have no trouble beating the top-ranked female tennis player. Needless to say, the early 1970s were a time when the notion that women should remain subordinate to men was a popular belief. But after weeks of hype, and in front of more than 30,000 spectators at the Houston Astrodome and a global television audience estimated at 50 million, King picked Riggs apart and beat him in three straight sets in what became known as the 1973 Battle of the Sexes.

Once her tennis playing days were over, King continued to be an icon of lesbian and women’s equality. She mentored countless women athletes who came after her, including Martina Navratilova and Venus and Serena Williams. She also counseled members of the U.S. women’s soccer team, who 10 years ago were the biggest story in sports as they pursued — and won — the 1999 Women’s World Cup.

As King gets older, the appreciation for her importance seems to grow deeper. She is the first woman to have a major sports facility named in her honor: the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Life magazine named her one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century. And this week, along with Sandra Day O’Connor, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Sidney Poitier, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Harvey Milk (posthumously), she won the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom.

She earned it. Billie Jean King is a living legend who has advanced the cause of equality and freedom not only in this country but around the world.

Andrea Lewis is the host and producer of “Sunday Sedition” on KPFA Radio in Berkeley, Calif., and a Stanford University Knight Journalism Fellow, Class of 2008. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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Trump's politics are not the problem.

The fiery Milwaukee Sheriff is on the shortlist to head the Department of Homeland Security.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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