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The U.S. women didn’t wait for their moment. They demanded it, and that’s what real power is.

The U.S. soccer team celebrates with the trophy after claiming its fourth Women’s World Cup title Sunday.
The U.S. soccer team celebrates with the trophy after claiming its fourth Women’s World Cup title Sunday. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Real power doesn’t come from lifting a dumbbell or having a big office. Those are just petty little varieties of it. If you want to see real power, watch a swell coming across the ocean, an immeasurable displacement that utterly remakes the terrain. That’s what you witnessed in these U.S. Women’s World Cup champions: the gathering of real power.

Power is Megan Rapinoe, cold and still as an icefall as she eyed the Netherlands goalie before a penalty kick. “I’m made for this; I love it,” she said later. On the spot in merely the biggest tournament in the world, after taking on the president politically and calling out FIFA personally, all Rapinoe did was leg-whip all of her opponents, making her body go left while her foot went right, to put the U.S. team ahead in Sunday’s final.

Power is Rose Lavelle, slicing up the middle of the field and launching that left-footed Stinger missile of a shot that practically had a contrail for the 2-0 margin of victory. The whole team, heaving upward with the trophy in its hands while the stadium chanted: “Equal pay! Equal pay!” — that is power.

After a World Cup victory like no other, one chant stands out for the U.S. women: ‘Equal pay!’

Never again should this most magnificent of American teams be shortchanged by the so-called power brokers in suits, the players treated as some kind of subsidized junior varsity who should be thankful for what they get — as opposed to the steel-toed legends they are. Alex Morgan, with all of that ominous smoothness as she moves toward the goal. Crystal Dunn, with those heel-kicking cutbacks and tackles, sliding to stifle the opposition time after time. Power.

Power is taking an epic shot, betting on yourself the way these players did and then coming through. They sued, filing a headliner of a pay discrimination suit against U.S. Soccer just three months before the World Cup. Then, with the massive burden of expectations on their supremely confident backs, they went out and gave the world a lesson in pure unadulterated clout. They swept through the tournament like a tremendous swell, carrying ever-bigger global TV audiences with them as they went, scoring a record 26 goals while giving up just three.

So now the gentlemen at U.S. Soccer can explain to a lawsuit mediator — as well as Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Curry, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Ellen DeGeneres, Bette Midler, Ryan Seacrest, most of Congress and all of this team’s other admirers — exactly why these women deserve less in performance bonuses and appearance fees than a men’s team that has never won jack.

“Everyone is kind of asking what’s next and what we want to come of all of this,” Rapinoe said. “It’s to stop having the conversation about equal pay and are we worth it.”

USWNT’s euphoric celebration was worthy of the World Cup champs

For so long, male sports bureaucrats have acted as though women’s sports is a blackmailed concession to social engineering. The gents at U.S. Soccer and FIFA seem to think they granted these women a favor and allowed them to grow the game out of sheer benevolence. In fact, these organizations have been grudging obstacles every single step of the way, declining to adequately promote the game despite clear evidence of a vast new audience and revenue. For pure obstructive pettiness, how about this? As of 2016, U.S. Soccer was still giving men’s players $75 a day in meal money while paying the women $60.

This is power: Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, tautly muscled and flying through the air like a paratrooper. Tobin Heath and Julie Ertz and Carli Lloyd and Christen Press, playing the ball like jazz on their shoe tops. They were genial and beautiful and blisteringly smart and totally imperturbable under pressure — and the damndest thing you’ve ever seen on a field. Power.

Here’s the truth: Women in the workplace get pretty much nowhere until a group such as this comes along and pops some new muscle. For some reason it’s the only thing that male deciders take as proof of competence, the only thing that convinces them that women have enough cold steel in them to drive companies or serve on aircraft carriers. Every time a women’s team wins another gold medal, it helps other women enter a new space, move up to a higher suite. And when they enter that new space, they change it forever — and not just by improving the language and table manners. It “removes the lurking question of the impossibility of an ambition,” Susan Hockfield, a neuroscientist who was the first woman to serve as president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, once said. To borrow a phrase from Condoleezza Rice, they make “the impossible seem inevitable in retrospect.” That’s power.

The U.S. team’s domination, by the numbers

A victory such as this does something much bigger than just hand a few women a trophy. “It gives everyone permission,” Billie Jean King has said. This is the real source of the dynamism in the U.S. women’s soccer tradition — and it is a tradition now. The U.S. squad has always played with the consciousness that it was about other women and not just the team. The great Mia Hamm-led ’99ers, who really built this city, explicitly passed that message to the younger players, and it’s why the program has such an infinite capacity for rejuvenation no matter how the cast changes, with four Olympic gold medals and four World Cups now, and no sign of its ambition flagging.

Everyone who enters the program understands she is expected to perform with a certain ethic: to handle discrimination with equanimity while charging across lines that previously seemed impassable, and to do so without an audible word of complaint that life isn’t fair. When they were asked if they could fight a discriminatory pay suit and still play quality World Cup soccer, Ali Krieger answered: “Women can multitask. Imagine that; we can do two things at once.”

These players didn’t ask for anyone to play violins for them. They just snatched the violin away and bashed it all to pieces. It’s a philosophy summed up by the late Nora Ephron: “Be the heroine of your own life, not the victim,” she said. That’s power.

More from Sally Jenkins:

The USWNT is after something far more subversive than better pay

The U.S. women’s team is an American treasure. Pay the players a bounty.

The NCAA’s Mark Emmert is the lord of a feudal state that knows its time is over