Championing Women's Empowerment
With the US winning the 8th annual SheBelieves tournament, NSM celebrates the unparalleled accomplishments of the US Women's Soccer Team — and their determination in championing gender equality.
by Adam Slocum
February 16th, 2023
Getty Images / NSM Illustration
The 8th annual SheBelieves tournament featured four top national teams in a round-robin format where each team played each other over a one-week period. Since the annual SheBelieves tournament started in 2016, the 2023 winner, Team USA, has now won six out of eight times.
The SheBelieves movement is dedicated to women empowerment; it’s meant to encourage young women to achieve their dreams, no matter what they choose to pursue in life.
The SheBelieves concept was inspired during the build-up to the US National Team competing in the 2015 World Cup in Japan. The US team won the 2015 World Cup, marking its third victory in seven attempts, then went on to win back-to-back in 2019 for their fourth world championship, the most by any country. In previous years, they had won the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991 and again emerged victorious on American soil in a dramatic final against China in 1999.
This year’s SheBelieves tournament includes Team Canada, which decided to compete despite initiating a strike against Canada Soccer, their governing body. Leading up to the tournament, Team Canada issued a statement, presented by their captain, Christine Sinclair, the world’s leading international goal-scorer. It read in part, “To be clear, we are being forced back to work for the short term. This is not over. We will continue to fight for everything we deserve, and we will win. The SheBelieves is being played in protest.”
Led by co-captain, Megan Rapinoe, the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) fought a similar battle a few years earlier. With four World Cups, four Olympic gold medals, and six SheBelieves titles, USWNT is the most successful women’s national team of all time. Over the years, players like Mia Hamm, Briana Scurry, Alex Morgan, and Megan Rapinoe have crossed over into mainstream celebrity. Conversely, the men’s national team’s best finish was third in the 1930 World Cup and has never achieved the widespread popularity of the women; although, led by Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams, they performed admirably in the recent 2022 World Cup.
The US women’s national team officially began competing in 1985. The first Women’s World Cup took place in 1991 and the first Olympic women’s soccer competition took place at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Throughout the history of the national teams, up until very recently, the U.S. Soccer Federation has never fully appreciated the women’s team as much as the men’s, as evidenced by second-rate treatment that became increasingly apparent as the women’s accomplishments continued to pile up.
The first FIFA Women’s World Cup was held 61 years after the first men’s World Cup in 1930. The event—technically named “The 1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup”—was held in Guangdong, China in 1991. The United States team secured the Cup with a 2-1 win over Norway, led by Michelle Akers’ two goals. The tournament was broadcast on tape delay on only one channel in the US and there was little media coverage, so Americans barely registered that their national team had accomplished this feat.
Getty Images / Sports Illustrated
“We’d gone through this incredible thing,
and we come home and it’s like the Twilight Zone.”
- Michelle Akers
From early on, the players took it into their own hands to push the federation toward more equal treatment. In 1995, members of the team were locked out of the Olympic training camp when they refused to sign contracts that only gave them bonuses for winning gold when the men got bonuses for silver and bronze. U.S. Soccer eventually relented and gave equal medal bonuses for the 1996 Olympics, which the USWNT won.
When the US was selected to host the 1999 World Cup, there weren’t many expectations on how the tournament would be received in America. However, the success of the 1996 U.S Olympic team, who won gold in the first appearance of women’s soccer at the Games, led to the World Cup being held in large venues in anticipation of crowds like the 76,489 people that packed the University of Georgia’s stadium for the gold medal game. The “99’ers” team, led by Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, and Briana Scurry now had some name recognition.
As such, the 1999 Women’s World Cup was a much larger spectacle than the previous two. All matches were televised on ABC and ESPN, as well as on international networks. Two thousand journalists covered the Cup and N’SYNC and Jennifer Lopez performed at the opening and closing ceremonies respectively, elevating it from a sporting event to a cultural experience.
The final pitted the U.S versus China at the famed Rose Bowl. Over 90,000 fans (a record crowd for a women’s sporting event) were treated to one of the most iconic games of all time. Scoreless after regulation and extra time, the match moved to penalty kicks. The teams were level at two penalties a piece until American goalkeeper, Briana Scurry, saved China’s third attempt. The Chinese and Americans converted their next two penalties, putting all the pressure on Brandi Chastain to put the fifth penalty away and win it for the Americans. Chastain calmly took a run up and struck the ball cleanly into the upper 90 with her powerful left foot, an unstoppable strike. Brandi immediately ripped off her shirt, sank to her knees, and let out a scream of euphoric passion. That moment has been preserved as one of the most recognizable sports photographs of all time.
The ‘99 World Cup was a watershed moment toward expanding the influence and significance of women’s athletics in popular culture, inspiring a boom in girls’ youth soccer participation in the process. One woman, who was a young fan in 1999, described the effect of watching the ‘99ers triumph: “I was like, I want to be them when I grow up. I want to be Mia, I want to be Brandi, I want to be Kristine, I want to be Julie...I had never seen female athletes on TV in that way.” That fan? Alex Morgan.
Tense collective bargaining negotiations followed the ‘99 World Cup, resulting in the team refusing to play in the Australia Cup. Dissatisfaction with treatment by the federation would be passed on to the next generation as well. In 2016, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Megan Rapinoe filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging unequal pay and bonuses. A new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) was signed the next year, but it was too little too late.
Three months before the 2019 World Cup in France every single member of the USWNT and five recent former members joined a gender discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer alleging unequal pay and treatment in terms of travel, medical treatment, coaching, and frequency of matches. By fighting for what they rightfully deserved, the team made an indelible impact leading up to the biggest stage in women’s soccer – this time the 2019 World Cup.
After the team added the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup to their trophy case, yet another reason why equal conditions had been earned, they were greeted in New York City by a ticker-tape parade and 300,000 fans, many of whom held signs saying, “Equal Pay.”
The ongoing legal battle was complicated and drawn out as the differences between the men’s and women’s CBAs are intricate. In May 2020, the district court judge presiding over the case dismissed the USWNT equal pay claims, which many viewed as being a death sentence for their case. However, in April 2021, that same judge approved a settlement for the team on their unequal working conditions claim that fell under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act, providing the opportunity to appeal the equal pay judgment.
Getty Images / CBS News
In February 2022, a final settlement was reached, ending what had been a six-year legal battle. In a historic verdict, it was agreed that the USWNT would receive $24 million in back-pay, and both the men’s and women’s teams would receive equal pay going forward. This ruling applied to World Cup prize money, which meant the USWNT received their equal share—$6.5 million—due to the men’s stellar performance in reaching the 2022 FIFA World Cup’s Round of 16.
As a result of this case, the USWNT has become a symbol of the global fight for gender equity, and a model for Team Canada in its current battle with Canada Soccer. In 2021, prior to winning their equal pay lawsuit, Megan Rapinoe testified before Congress on Equal Pay Day, the day in the year when women would have finally earned what men of a comparable occupation had earned the previous year. Her remarks recognized the mantle the team had taken on:
"Throughout the process, we’ve realized that, yes, we’re fighting for ourselves but...we are with so many women who … do not have the bright lights and the cameras on them all the time. We are looking to carry this torch for so many other women."
– Megan Rapinoe
The first US match against Canada was highly competitive and entertaining, yet the powerhouse USA team vanquished its North American opponent 2-0 on goals by Mallory Swanson. Throughout the SheBelieves Cup, Canada was using the platform to garner suport and assert itself in the eyes of their national governing body. This match between the US and Canada was no longer about women empowerment in a symbolic way; it was about one team that has already achieved equality with its male colleagues and the other fighting for their own empowerment as a team. Though Team Canada, ranked #6 in the world, has not enjoyed the history of success and adulation that Team USA has achieved as the world’s #1 ranked team, they were playing with a purpose, which made them an even more formidable opponent. Though the USA team was striving to bring home another SheBelieves title, I imagine they were also rooting for their Canadian counterparts to earn a well-deserved victory, off the field.
National Sports Museum focuses on the mission of advancing social justice, empowering diversity, equity, and inclusion, inspiring personal excellence, and uniting us as a nation. NSM will feature an exhibit called Player Empowerment that showcases the USWNT, both soccer and hockey, highlighting their efforts to achieve gender equity in sports, and empowering the movement throughout society as a whole.
With nine leading non-profit co-founders, NSM will be a central gathering place and welcoming environment for the American and global sports communities to come together to address a multitude of social and cultural issues, all centered around sports as a unifying force.
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