For more on the WTA's Original 9, read our write-ups on each of tennis' trailblazing women.
As the daughter of a promoter her fellow peers turned to, it wasn’t exactly a surprise to see Julie Heldman step forward as one of tennis’ Original 9 on September 23, 1970, in Houston. But for Heldman, her perspective was shaped by her own experiences, well beyond the close connection to the brainchild of the Virginia Slims Circuit, Gladys Heldman.
One encounter the Berkeley, Calif. native vividly recalled occurred during her stay with a tournament host. “They said, you’re a free woman. Should I divorce my husband?”
Another involved a trip to London, where Heldman initially shrugged off a question about women’s lib, saying she was here to play an event. “Do you realize a lot of the women I know think of you as someone special? And they wish they could do it,” a male reporter asked.
Heldman was awakened that the time for social justice was now. In 1970, she did the math, determining that just $5,000 in annual prize money for women’s tennis players was available in the U.S. It soon became clear where the money was going: the men—players and those running the sport.
“I’m really proud of what we did. We stood up for something important and we looked the people in the eye who were doing us harm, and we said go away,” Heldman told Tennis Channel. “We knew it was our current time, and we knew we were going for the future, for women and women in tennis.”
For Heldman, the satisfaction of what she and the eight women achieved comes in many shapes and sizes today. From watching WTA players earn multi-million dollar pay checks on the Grand Slam stage to the simplest of observations in every day life, it's not hard for Heldman to highlight the progress that's been made.
“I even feel proud when I see women walking down the street in their leggings with their gym bag, because back in my era, that didn’t happen,” she said. “We were part of this change that brought about a different world, where women could be proud to be athletes. I’m really happy about that.”