By Beks Freeman
One might think that the founder of the Virginia Slims Circuit, which in time became the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Tour, must have studied athletic training in college or had a sports scholarship. Instead, Gladys Heldman (ΦBK, Stanford University) took a master’s degree in medieval studies, a major that might have in other ways prepared her for the world of tennis.
According to Tennis.com‘s Joel Drucker, Heldman’s liberal arts background prepared her to balance the big picture with the details in a constantly shifting landscape. Medieval times were no picnic for women, and neither was professional tennis. Heldman herself described the environment of pro tennis when she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, in an archival recording recently published by WTATenns.com:
“Today, the USTA [United States Tennis Association, formerly USLTA] favors women’s pro tennis and has been extremely helpful financially. In those days, the USLTA was quite chauvinistic, and of the 80-odd members of the executive committee, 100 hundred percent were male. And I would say a great many were elderly males and that all of them preferred to see men on the center court and women playing on the backcourts at 9:00 in the morning.”
In addition, Heldman was a late bloomer in the sport. She didn’t start playing tennis until she was 23 years old, and started competing two years later. Still, she learned quickly, gaining entry in the U.S. Championships several times and going to Wimbledon in 1954.
On top of Heldman’s own professional success, WTATennis.com describes her off-court drive as the thing that would leave her real mark on history. In 1953, Heldman founded World Tennis magazine. The International Tennis Hall of Fame identifies World Tennis as “a magazine written by and for the players,” calling it “one of the sport’s most influential mediums.” Heldman started as the sole member of the magazine’s team, but the organization grew until she sold it to CBS in 1972. While running World Tennis, Heldman used the magazine to advocate for gender equity, especially addressing pay gaps between men and women.
Heldman’s advocacy for all players would catapult her into one of her biggest achievements: starting the Virginia Slims tour. In September 1970, the Pacific Southwest Championships in Los Angeles proposed to pay the men’s field eight times more than the women. Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, and Nancy Richey approached Heldman to help them craft a response. Instead of simply boycotting the tournament, Heldman convinced the Houston Tennis Association and the Texas LTA to back an alternative eight-women tournament with the Houston Racquet Club. Heldman herself contributed to the prize money, but she didn’t stop there. She persuaded her friend Joe Cullman, head of the tobacco company Philip Morris, to contribute $2,500 to the pool in exchange for naming rights. Heldman’s savvy in navigating capital-based networks paid off, and the Virginia Slims tour was born.
To make the tournament official, each of the Original 9 (Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kerry Melville, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Kristy Pigeon, Judy Tegart Dalton, and Gladys’ own daughter, Julie Heldman) signed a $1 contract with Heldman to compete in the tournament. Their work paid off, with Virginia Slims agreeing to back the first fully-fledged women’s circuit in 1971. According to WTATennis.com, the circuit “instantly doubled the total prize money available to women around the world that year.” Thanks to the laws of competition, the success of the Virginia Slims deal forced established tournaments to become more equitable.
Heldman was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa at Stanford University in 1942, the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1979, and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2000. To learn more, watch Tennis.com’s Gladys Heldman episode from their series on the 50th anniversary of the WTA.
ΦBK’s Stanford Chapter President Hank Greely is excited to bring Heldman’s legacy back into the light, not only as part of the chapter’s history but also as a reminder of what being a member of the Society is about. “At the very least, I will make sure, in our induction ceremony this June, to hold her out as an example to our new members,” Greely said. “Heldman is an example of how academic excellence and intellectual curiosity, which our chapter rewards, are consistent with outstanding performance in sports, as well as many other endeavors. Her story seems to me to be a shining example of what our chapter members can accomplish.”
Beks Freeman (they/he) is a senior at Purdue University double majoring in acting and creative writing. They were inducted into Phi Beta Kappa there in April 2022. Purdue University is home to the Zeta of Indiana chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. In addition to their undergraduate studies, Beks is pursuing acting, teaching, and fight directing certifications in stage combat with Dueling Arts International.
Photo at top from International Tennis Hall of Fame.