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Tomboys, Soccer Pay Victory and Women's History Month

February 25, 2022

What do you think of when you hear the word Tomboy? 

Does it bring back memories of roughhousing with your brothers, tinkering in the garage with your motorbike and preferring blue jeans to princess dresses? Or do you think of sports and how your confidence and character were shaped by playing on a team and having a coach who challenged you to pick yourself right up after setbacks and get back in the game? 

For me, a Baby Boomer who grew up in the 1950s and 60s, being a “tomboy” was all about freedom. Freedom to play tackle football with the neighborhood boys, ride horses and know I could hold my own in a fight with my three brothers. 

I never had the chance to play organized sports. So I'm jealous when I see young girls in uniforms running on soccer fields and females pushing the edges of athleticism at the Olympics. But most of all, I am THRILLED when I see female athletes stepping forward as leaders to call out and challenge continued gender inequities in sports and fight for equal opportunity. Not just for themselves, but for all the girls to come.

That’s exactly what Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and their U.S. Women’s National Soccer teammates have been doing -- collectively -- for six years. Despite wining four World Cup titles, four Olympic gold medals and six straight years ranked FIFA’s No 1, they had to sue their own organization, U.S. Soccer, to fight for equal treatment.

These world-class athletes refused to accept lower pay, inferior working conditions and lack of marketing support, as they dramatically outperformed their male peers in global soccer competition. They fought for equality, as a team, as fiercely as they fought for championships. 

Their collective courage and tenacity paid off.  U.S. Soccer just agreed to pay $25 million to settle the lawsuit. “Tacit admission,” according to the NY Times, “that compensation for the men’s and women’s teams has been unequal for years.”  

That’s one gigantic step forward for women in sports. 

While there's still a long way to go, let's relish this hard-fought victory and recognize its lasting legacy: the domino effect it helped to kick-start.The U.S. Olympic women’s ice hockey team, WNBA players and Canada’s women’s soccer team have all followed the U.S. soccer team’s example by fighting for equal pay in their own workplaces.

What a great way kick off Women’s History Month.  

While we’re celebrating, let’s also reflect on the tremendous impact of athletes such as Billie Jean King who, nearly 50 years ago, formed the Women’s Tennis Association, threatened to boycott the U.S. Open and led the successful fight for equal prize money for women in tennis.  

And the important role modeling of Serena Williams, considered one of the greatest athletes of all time. Gymnast Simon Biles who changed the conversation about mental health and athleticism. Baseball trailblazers Kim Ng, the first female General Manager, now leading the Miami Marlins and Rachel Balkovec, just hired by the NY Yankees to manage their minor league Tampa Tarpons team. And 19-year old Belgian-British pilot Zara Rutherford who just set a world record as the youngest woman to fly SOLO around the world. 

I suspect that all of those women considered themselves “tomboys” as young girls. If you relish that part of yourself, as I still do, or perhaps the tomboy spirit in your daughter or granddaughter, you might like the new book, TOMBOY:The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different, and my interview with the author, Lisa Selin Davis, for my POWER UP WOMEN podcast. 

The word "tomboy"has gone out of style, but the freedom and exhilaration of women discovering their own physical capabilities, as well as the inspiration we feel from watching other females prove in multiple new ways, "Yes We Can!" never will.

Not Since Billie Jean and Bobby

July 14, 2019

 

Where were you when Megan Rapinoe, captain of the USA Soccer team (let the men use the defining gender adjective), took one deep breath, moved her body to the right and kicked left, powering a penalty kick past Holland's brilliant goalkeeper to break a 0-0 deadlock in the championship game of the 2019 World Cup? 

Where were you a few minutes later when midfielder Rose Lavelle wove her way through multiple defenders to score a legendary, solo goal, putting her team up 2-0 and assuring USA Soccer its 4th World Cup? 

Did you get goosebumps, as I did, listening to the sold-out stadium crowd chanting not just "USA, USA", at the end, but "EQUAL PAY, EQUAL PAY!"

And where were you when pink-haired Rapinoe, captain of this brash, confident team that has strutted onto the world stage and earned a permanent place in our hearts, took the podium, following a ticker tape parade in New York's "Canyon of Champions," and challenged all of us to seize this euphoric national moment as an opportunity to come together and move our society forward? 

"We have to be better. We have to love more. Hate less. We've got to listen more and talk less," she told the cheering crowd. "There has been so much contention in these last few years. . . It is time to come together. This conversation is at the next step."

THE "CONVERSATION" she's talking about is much bigger than sports victories. Rapinoe, Lavelle, Alex Morgan and their teammates all understand very clearly the platform they have achieved and the responsibility they have embraced to use their voices and influence, not only to fight for equal pay, but to hold our culture's feet to a much bigger fire: GENDER EQUALITY. 

As Rapinoe put it, "Yes, we play sports.  Yes, we play soccer.  Yes, we are female athletes, but we are so much more than that. . . We have pink hair and purple hair. We have tattoos. Dreadlocks. We got white girls and black girls and everything in between! Straight girls and gay girls." 

NOT SINCE BILLIE JEAN KING SILENCED Bobby Riggs and his chauvinistic blatherings about male superiority with her 1973 tennis victory in the legendary "Battle of the Sexes, witnessed by millions, has there been a defining sports moment that has so stunningly toppled deeply-ingrained gender stereotypes and instantly changed the conversation about women's place in the world. We are in a new place. 

But there is a critical difference that sets the long-term impact of this 2019 World Cup moment apart from the accomplishment of Billie Jean King, who was also fighting for equal pay for women's tennis. BJK did it alone. She was a powerful and inspiring symbol of possibility for a generation of girls (me included). A solitary, super woman.   

But USA Soccer's achievement was a team victory. An example to the world of what powerful, talented focused women working collectively can accomplish. Black girls, white girls, straight girls, gay girls and everything in between! They are the affirmation, as USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan put it, of "...all the goodness that comes from raising another generation of strong, intelligent, fearless and successful women through sports." 

If you missed the games, you missed something very special. But you will not miss the cultural impact of what these leaders have done. Because they are as clear about the power of their voices and their right to use them to demand equality as they are about the power of their strong bodies and ability to defeat whatever obstacles are thrown at them. 

AND HERE'S THE BEST PART. USA Women's Soccer is merely a symbol of things to come. The tip of icebergs of new generations of women -- Millennials and Gen Z's and their daughters -- who will not settle for second class status. 

This Baby Boomer is thrilled to pass the leadership torch. But I have no intention of retiring from the fight. I will cover their flanks and have their backs as we collectively move forward toward our shared goal: Equality for all!

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