Sport says a lot about how far society has come. Leading social historian Harold Perkins once put it this way,
When you watch Wimbledon this year, you will be watching a sport that is probably the closest there is to gender equality. Wimbledon gives male and female tennis players equal screen time and equal pay.
It was the Victorians who first recognized the importance of women’s tennis. The world’s oldest tennis tournament, the Wimbledon Championships, added Ladies Singles to the roster in 1884.
In 2007, Wimbledon and the French Open joined other Grand Slam tournaments in giving equal prize money to men and women—tennis has broken down the gender pay gap.
But it wasn’t always that way.
In 1973, Billie Jean King had the weight of the world on her shoulders as she played against former number-one-ranked Bobby Riggs in a US-televised tournament dubbed “Battle of the Sexes”.
In 1973, a woman could not get a credit card without her husband or father or a male signing off on it. —Billie Jean King.
Billie Jean King triumphed that day and said it wasn’t about winning at tennis, but about showing that women were confident, strong and equal.
89 years before Billie Jean King’s historic win, there was another historic moment taking place at Wimbledon, as Maud Watson faced Lillian Watson (her sister) to become the first female Wimbledon Champion.
Imagine Maud facing one of today’s players, such as Maria Sharapova, and it becomes abundantly clear that Victorian women played with a significant handicap—their clothing!
Victorian Society dictated that arms had to be covered and ankles hidden by gowns that almost touched the ground. Furthermore, women had to endure three starched petticoats under the dress to make it blossom out. Think how hot it must have been!
Naturally, the infamous Victorian corset was also a requirement to maintain an hourglass figure at all times. Not to mention the expense of the entire ensemble.
Heeled boots, a rigid whalebone collar, and a wide-brimmed hat rounded out the sporting attire.
Now imagine trying to run to the net for the drop shots … and dash back to the baseline to return a lob.
Anyone for tennis?
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Enjoy a trip down the tennis memory lane with these images of a bygone time.