Commentary Law and Policy

Watching the U.S. Women’s National Team Win Drove Home Decades of Fighting for Dignity

Jessica Mason Pieklo

There I sat when the game was called, making a sound like a barking seal as I sobbed. I knew at that moment we had reached a tipping point in the fight for gender equity and against LGBTQ discrimination, one that in my 30-plus years as a feminist and as an athlete I hadn't been sure I would ever see.

When the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) won the World Cup on Sunday, I sat in my seat at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, British Columbia and ugly cried. By the time the match was called, I’d already lost my voice from cheering. But there I was anyway, in my ridiculous stars-and-stripes pinwheel headgear and temporary American flag face tattoos, making a sound like a barking seal as I sobbed uncontrollably. I knew at that moment we had reached a tipping point in the fight for gender equity and against LGBTQ discrimination, one that in my 30-plus years as a feminist and as an athlete I hadn’t been sure I would ever see.

Congress passed Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in federally funding educational programs, in 1972. I started playing soccer eight years later. I was in first grade and my dad signed me up for a co-ed team at the YMCA because it was the only team available. By the time I reached junior high, a small group of soccer clubs had sprouted up in my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska; by the time I was a senior in high school, they had produced an impressive batch of elite players.

We were, in many ways, the implementation generation: the girls that grew up alongside the first round of Title IX opportunities that included high school and college athletics. We had the benefit of Title IX programs in place, but they were embryonic and usually not well supported. Despite a batch of enthusiastic players, parents, and fans, my high school girls’ soccer team practiced and played on smaller, adjacent fields to the boys’ team. Our coaches were not as experienced, sometimes learning the sport on the fly. Playing soccer helped me develop self-esteem and the belief that, even as a teenage girl in conservative Nebraska, I deserved to take space and claim it as my own. But that self-confidence didn’t just happen because I learned to appreciate the strength of my body on the field; I also had to foster the presence of mind to deflect comments that playing soccer would make my thighs too big or might, gasp, make people think I was gay.

That’s changed in the 43 years since Title IX has been in place. Not only has the law been an important part of developing the kind of elite athletes represented on the USWNT, it’s become a vital tool in combating the more insidious forms of gender discrimination in education. It guarantees accommodations for pregnant students and student-mothers and has become the vehicle through which campus activists are challenging institutional inaction on campus rape. It’s a way to express and achieve fundamental fairness when it comes to educational access.

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The impact of Title IX on gender equity is undeniable, as is the fact that it has grown up alongside a very successful wave of LGBTQ activism. The two go hand-in-hand. As Title IX succeeded in breaking down barriers related to gender, athletics, and education, those first beneficiaries succeeded in breaking down stereotypes about femininity, sexuality, work, and sports. And while it’s hard to disentangle the protections and benefits conferred by Title IX and the groundswell of support for marriage equality, I think there are some common threads that we saw in the Obergerfell v. Hodges decision—namely, the dominance of Justice Kennedy’s “dignity doctrine.” With its passage, Title IX allowed girls to be full agents in their education, a benefit fundamentally grounded in the idea that it is unfair to deny us anything less.

In other words, Title IX and marriage equality work because they are grounded in human dignity—the dignity of women and the dignity of LGBTQ people.

Not coincidentally, the Women’s World Cup has marked a high point of LGBTQ acceptance in sports, with the USWNT among those leading the way. The coverage blew all other sporting events out of the water, with women’s soccer drawing the kind of viewer numbers men’s professional sports spend a lot of money pining after. Their coach, Jill Ellis, is openly gay, as are a number of players. The image of Abby Wambach kissing her wife Sarah Huffman following the USWNT win is perhaps one of the most iconic from the tournament in part because it was just so darn normal. And as I saw it happen, and watched the replay over and over and over again, I couldn’t help but think of the timing of it all. On June 26, the conservative Roberts Court ruled in favor of marriage equality; a week and a few days later, Abby Wambach shared a celebratory kiss with her wife for the world to see. And in each case, millions cheered on in support.

To get there took decades of activism that is far from over, of course. It took decades of players overcoming misogyny and homophobia in sports culture and litigators filing lawsuits that never reached the Supreme Court. In other words, it took decades of implementation and convincing others of our dignity and self-worth.

The result, the wins at both the World Cup and the Supreme Court. were spectacular. But they must be just the beginning. Kennedy’s marriage decision is, at its heart, a conservative one, prioritizing above all else the idea that a person’s worth is measured in relation to another—in this case, a spouse. As Imani Gandy points on in this must-read piece, Kennedy’s “dignity doctrine” may be great for gay rights, but it has not been so great for abortion rights or other issues of gender equality. It won’t do anything to push back against the discrimination the LGBTQ community faces every day. And the dominance of women’s soccer in the United States is definitely something to celebrate, but we’ve got to talk about the sport’s undeniable tie to privileged white culture in this country also.

We’ve come so far with still so far to go. But as I sat in the stadium ugly crying for USWNT I felt for the first time that was a distance we will cover, and soon. USWNT player Megan Rapinoe has made the call for transgender acceptance in the sport; following the Obergerfell decision, the New York Times made the call for gender acceptance in the workplace, lighting the path forward for the next round of Title IX advocacy. In a little more than 40 years, we’ve gone from working to end blatant sex-based discrimination in education to understanding the ways in which discrimination based on sex stereotypes also stymies basic equality. This is the success of Title IX. Its importance goes well beyond the pitch of the World Cup fields.

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