The Forgotten Teenage Trailblazer of Women’s Tennis
Growing up in Kew Gardens, Queens, in the 1960s, Phyllis Graber played stickball, handball and baseball, eventually falling for tackle football, which she played in Forest Park, the only girl who was interested. Concerned that she was “developing,” her parents encouraged her to shift her focus to something demanding less savagery. She found this vaguely ridiculous but chose tennis, a sport in which she excelled. While she would have been invaluable on any girls’ tennis team, Jamaica High School in 1970 did not have one.
With little ambivalence, Phyllis asked to play on the boys’ team. Against the vogue for male chauvinism, both the coach, who recognized her talent, and the team members themselves said they would welcome her. But Board of Education rules governing school athletics did not permit the inclusion of girls in boys’ sports. So at 16, Ms. Graber filed what turned out to be an enormously influential complaint with New York City’s Commission on Human Rights.
This year’s U.S. Open unfolds within the context of landmark anniversaries in the history of women’s tennis, a chronology in which Phyllis Graber played an important if forgotten part. On Tuesday in Flushing Meadows, Michelle Obama honored Billie Jean King’s work to establish equity in the distribution of prize money, which had a turning point at the Open 50 years ago. September will also mark a half-century since the “Battle of the Sexes,” one of the most watched sporting events of all time, the match that had Ms. King defeating Bobby Riggs as both a tenacious adversary of his baseline game and blowhard prejudices.
The early 1970s were a watershed moment for women’s tennis and the role it held in advancing equality more broadly. Ms. Graber made her case before the Commission on Human Rights in September 1970, when its chairwoman was the civil rights leader and future congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Before Ira Glasser, who would later become the director of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed the official complaint, he spent six months unsuccessfully petitioning the Board of Education to shift its policy. In practice sessions, Ms. Graber had beat two boys who made the team. But the hearing — one of the era’s first on the rights of women — made the difference. In February 1971, the board voted to allow girls to compete with boys in non-contact sports. Ms. Graber joined the team, where, by her own admission, she was not the best player but could still claim many wins.