Sunday’s World Cup victory for the U.S. women’s national soccer team was entirely due to the hard work and talent of the players on the field. But long before they were born, civil rights advocates and legislators were hard at work clearing their path to success.
Passed by Congress nearly 50 years ago, Title IX prohibited educational institutions receiving federal funding from discrimination based on gender. The legislation ensured the right of students to learn in an environment free from sexual harassment, and guaranteed pregnant and parenting teens breastfeeding accommodations. But the best-known feature of Title IX was its requirement of equal athletic opportunities for girls and boys.
This was a novel concept in the 1970s, and it did not go unchallenged. Lawsuits were filed by the NCAA and others demanding exemptions from the athletic provision. Their arguments hinged on an assumption that girls were not as interested in sports as boys, so schools should not be required to hire coaches to serve them or provide equal practice space. But judges determined — and history has shown — that the argument was simply untrue. When sports are made available to girls, they embrace them. The year Title IX was passed, there were 700 girls playing soccer on high school teams, according to a participation survey of the National Federation of High School Assns.; today, there are 390,000.
At roughly the same time the U.S. was passing Title IX, women’s rights movements around the world were succeeding in lifting bans on women’s soccer leagues. Several countries — including England, Brazil and Germany — had barred women from the sport on the premise that playing soccer could damage their ability to bear children. While eliminating the prohibitions was a step forward, this alone was not enough to generate an influx of young athletes; the sport was technically allowed but with limited investment, participation was anemic.
The U.S. took a different tack, and it reverberates in the world of women’s soccer today. Title IX didn’t merely allow women to play; it required opportunities be made available to them.
And the players poured in.
Between the year Title IX was passed (1972) and the first Women’s World Cup (1991), the sport saw a 17,000% increase in U.S. girls playing on high school soccer teams, according to the National Federation of High School Assns.
Some of these girls have grown up to be among the finest athletes in the world, and they are now in position to demand another kind of gender parity: pay equality.
Twenty-eight members of the U.S. Women’s National Team have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation alleging they are paid less than their male counterparts, despite doing the same work (and despite their impressive record of four World Cup championships and four Olympic gold medals).