The U.S. women’s national soccer team takes to the field Tuesday to open its World Cup run and defend its title as world champion. But the World Cup isn’t the only battle the team is fighting. Just three months ago, 28 of its members filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, the country’s national governing body for soccer.
The lawsuit argues that the USSF discriminates against women by paying them less than members of the men’s team despite the women’s team’s far greater success in international competitions. As described in the lawsuit, if the men and women played 20 matches each and each squad won all the games, female players would earn a maximum of $99,000, while male players would earn an average of $263,320.
Unequal pay is just one of the many discriminatory practices the U.S. women’s team has confronted and challenged since its formation. Even though the U.S. women’s squad has been successful for decades — with multiple World Cup and Olympic titles, certainly outdoing the men’s team — they’ve had to constantly fight for better treatment.
With every inequity, the team leveraged its unprecedented success to force change. Given that, the continued second-class status of the team in the USSF framework illustrates a larger conundrum in women’s sports: Winning alone is not enough to eradicate inequality. The deeply rooted assumptions about women’s inferiority in physical pursuits require female athletes to win on the field and advocate off it to make strides toward gender equality.
Women have had to fight for equal treatment since the earliest days of female sports. Advocacy increased in the 1970s with the rise of the women’s liberation movement. Female pioneers broke barriers and took to the courts, fields and stadiums in record numbers. Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to officially complete the Boston Marathon in 1967; a legal victory in 1974 granted girls the right to play Little League Baseball; and tennis star Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in the 1973 match dubbed the Battle of the Sexes.
Yet society appeared to view these female accomplishments as evidence of women’s capability, not their equality. When Switzer ran the 26.2-mile race, she knew she needed to finish “or no one would believe that women could do it.” Such achievements made female athleticism more acceptable, but women’s sports remained maligned in America.
The history of the U.S. women’s soccer team exemplifies the grudging, incomplete acceptance of female athletes. Soccer organizers initially believed women were physically unable to compete. When women did participate, it was often in modified events on shorter fields for shorter durations. It was not until the 1980s, 70 years into its existence, that the USSF included women, and even then only after the threat of a lawsuit.
The USSF haphazardly formed a squad for the 1985 international Mundialito tournament. The team only practiced together in a three-day camp on a field some described as a cow pasture. Illustrative of the USSF’s view of female inferiority, the federation provided the women previously used uniforms without any lettering and $10 a day for food.
FIFA’s misogynistic view of women’s soccer paralleled the USSF’s. In 1991, the international soccer federation launched the first women’s world championship. But because of fears the tournament would flop, it refused to grant the event the “World Cup” title, instead dubbing it the World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup, or, colloquially, the “M&M’s Cup.”
Organizers also considered adopting changes to accommodate the players’ supposed biological shortcomings, including using a youth-size ball. Eventually, they used the standard-size ball, but games were shortened from 90 minutes to 80, out of concerns about women’s lack of stamina. “They were afraid our ovaries were going to fall out if we played 90!” joked U.S. player April Heinrichs.
Wearing uniforms previously used by a boys’ youth team, the U.S. women’s team won the tournament, the start of an impressive run in international competition. The team would finish third in the 1995 Women’s World Cup (FIFA permitted the use of the “World Cup” title after the successes of the 1991 tournament) and captured gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games, the first Olympics to include women’s soccer.
The team used this success to try to secure greater equality for women’s soccer. Before the 1996 Olympics, a dispute about bonuses had surfaced. The USSF promised bonuses only if the women’s team earned the gold medal; the players wanted payment for silver or bronze as well, the same terms that had been guaranteed to the men. In defense of the federation’s position, USSF Executive Director Hank Steinbrecher remarked, “We cannot reward mediocrity.” His postulation that a second- or third-place finish at the Olympics was mediocre — but only for the women — underscored a belief that women’s victories were substandard.
But the players refused to accept this condescending logic. In December 1995, nine U.S. women’s team members boycotted the Olympic training camp in protest. The public largely backed the women in their quest for better pay. “It’s a very vogue thing to be on the side of the women on this,” Steinbrecher complained. Public support stemmed from the women’s success and the patriotic fervor tied to international competition, especially since the Olympics was being held in the United States.
But the team’s racial makeup — eight of the nine protesting players were white — as well as the players’ presumed heterosexuality, also drove support for the team’s demands. Studies show that fans view white female athletes as more conventionally feminine, and therefore more acceptable, than athletes of color, who are often stigmatized as inappropriately masculine and muscular. Moreover, most of the athletes sported toned frames and long ponytails, markers of heterosexual femininity. Fans could therefore interpret the athletes as upholding gender norms rather than threatening them.
The USSF caved and agreed to pay bonuses for winning gold or silver.
The 1999 Women’s World Cup was a turning point for women’s soccer in America. Forty million television viewers watched as the U.S. team defeated China on penalty kicks. The final was not only the most watched women’s sporting event at the time, but also the most watched soccer game in U.S. history, men’s or women’s. The iconic image of a shirtless Brandi Chastain, who had ripped off her jersey in jubilation, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The victory granted the U.S. women’s team a greater claim to, and a bigger platform to fight for, better pay.
After the World Cup win, the players rejected short-term contracts on the same financial terms, demanding greater equity with their male counterparts. When the USSF refused, still somehow seeing the women as inferior to the men, even though the men had won neither Olympic gold nor a World Cup, the entire U.S. women’s team boycotted the 2000 Australian Cup. This prompted the USSF to grudgingly agree to negotiate. The new collective bargaining agreement established terms closer to what the players had demanded — and, importantly, more closely aligned the earning potential of the women with that of the men.
After an impressive run that included three Olympic gold medals and three top-three World Cup finishes, the U.S. women’s team took another stand against gender inequality ahead of the 2015 World Cup. The athletes joined players from other nations to file a gender discrimination lawsuit against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association for trying to play some of those games on artificial turf. Male players were never asked to play on such surfaces because of the increased likelihood of injury. Although the players eventually conceded, they laid the groundwork for future change, as all games this year will be played on grass.
The ongoing gender discrimination lawsuit looms over the U.S. players as they take the field Tuesday against Thailand. By participating in the tournament, the women have already outperformed the men, who did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup. But as history shows, it will take more than reclaiming the World Cup title to convince the USSF that women deserve true equality. Until the USSF, and other sports organizers, stop viewing female athletes as inherently inferior and their play as fundamentally substandard, women will have to combine on-field victories with off-field activism. A lawsuit by the No. 1 team in the midst of the sport’s biggest international forum sets a powerful example.