‘Leaving it better for the next generation’: US women’s soccer team on winning fight for equal pay
The U.S. women’s soccer team is being honored as a group as part of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year program, a recognition of women who have made a significant impact in their communities and across the country. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.
For decades, as generations of women made major gains in the fight for equity and equality, one glaring disparity has remained: their paychecks.
As women break glass ceilings in various industries – being elected vice president of the United States, helping create lifesaving vaccines, winning more World Cup races than any Alpine skier in history – pay for their accomplishments often don't equal that of their male counterparts. This year, women must work until March 14 to earn what men earned in 2022. This date is recognized as Equal Pay Day.
In March 2019, the U.S. women’s soccer team, who as reigning World Cup champions and social icons were considerably more popular and successful than the men’s national team, decided they were sick of it. Sick of earning less to play the same game, sick of not getting the same travel accommodations and field conditions.
In a daring move, the entire U.S. women's team filed a lawsuit demanding equal pay and equal working conditions, kicking off a three-year slog that involved condescending depositions, dismissive characterizations of their skills and accomplishments, and too many conferences with attorneys and advisers to count.
USWNT players had spent years arguing they should be paid the same as the men because they played the same game. Now they were taking their employer – U.S. Soccer – to court.
As usual, the USWNT won – and the ripple effect of their victory is still being felt.
On May 18, 2022, U.S. Soccer announced groundbreaking deals with the men's and women's national teams that would pay both squads equally, including an even split of World Cup prize money. (Some other national soccer federations pay their national teams equally in base pay, but no other country splits World Cup prize money equally.)
“What we’ve done is a landmark in progress (toward) gender equity. We set a new standard of value for women in the workforce,” USWNT forward Midge Purce said after the news broke.
Four months later, in August, a federal judge approved a $24 million settlement in the original lawsuit, officially bringing to an end a decades-long fight.
Meanwhile, the women's national team kept on winning, including the 2019 World Cup in France, while they were in the midst of their lawsuit against U.S. Soccer. They are a favorite for this summer’s World Cup, which kicks off July 20 in Australia and New Zealand.
For their tireless work to end pay inequity, the entire U.S. Women's National Team has been named a USA TODAY Women of the Year National honoree.
On behalf of their teammates, forward Alex Morgan, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, and defender Crystal Dunn, the vice president and secretary of the USWNT Players Association, spoke with USA TODAY.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Who paved the way for you all?
Crystal Dunn: The women who paved the way for the national team are those that started the foundation of the federation – the Mia Hamms, the Kristine Lillys, the Christie Rampones, the Shannon Boxxs. Those are players that really paved the way for me to be able to step foot on this field, represent the country and have all that we are able to have.
Alex Morgan: Abby Wambach was a leader on this team; she was someone who challenged norms all the time. She was a vocal person and wasn’t afraid to speak and ask questions. I really appreciated that, especially as a young player, seeing someone so comfortable in their own skin and so confident and so full of self-belief.
And I think (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) is also someone who paved an incredible path for so many women to follow. She also challenged norms and did so much great work to keep the integrity of human rights and women having an equal seat at the table.
For whom do you hope you’re paving the way?
Crystal Dunn: My hope is that when I leave this game, I'm leaving it better for the next generation. It's really important that we are laying groundwork for them to have an easier journey in this game, to be able to make a great living of playing this sport.
Alex Morgan: A Trinity Rodman or a Sophia Smith, they're going to reap all the benefits we fought so hard for. That’s why I did it, so the next generation won’t have to fight for equality and for equal conditions and for what should have been there but wasn’t.
I'm really proud of the fight and determination I showed and I really am looking forward to one day being able to share that with (her daughter) Charlie.
What is your proudest moment?
Crystal Dunn: Winning a World Cup. I think it's really incredible to make it through that World Cup and be that last team standing and hoisting that trophy. But I really believe that the journey is what makes this environment special. It's embracing the challenge, embracing the fight and doing it alongside some incredible women.
Was there a lowest moment?
Alex Morgan: At the beginning of last year, I doubted if this was going to actually happen. We’d put in hundreds and hundreds of hours talking to lawyers and going through multiple failed hopeful settlement times and depositions, and I really questioned if it was all for anything. We came out of that and realized, no, we’re at almost the end point. Keep fighting. Keep your heart in it and keep your head in it.
Do you have a guiding principle?
Alex Morgan: Just waking up each day and knowing that what we were doing was the right thing. That what we were doing was going to make a lasting impact forever, not only in the sport but outside the sport. Just trying to keep that in my mind, because it’s intimidating – filing a lawsuit against your employer and having to wake up every day and having to go to work for them!
You are mentors to a lot of people, especially young women. Whom do you look up to?
Crystal Dunn: Many of us look up to the players that came before us. I think whenever we are in the same vicinity as them, we are always reminded that they laid the groundwork for where we are today. When we achieved equal pay, it wasn't us creating this fight for the first time. It was the women that came before us who were fighting that same fight. Seeing us cross over that finish line, I know it meant so much to them as well.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Alex Morgan: A big reason I’m where I am is because of my self-belief. As a young girl and a teenager, that’s the most difficult thing to find: that self-belief, that confidence. I would tell my younger self to not doubt yourself, to believe yourself.
A lot of times, you're your own worst critic, but you can also be your best advocate. So believe in yourself unwaveringly.
Your team has so much representation – women of color, women who identify as LGBTQ. What does it mean to have all of those women achieve equal pay?
Crystal Dunn: As a woman of color, I've always felt like representation and visibility is so important. It gives me purpose. It gives me a reason to wake up every day and give my all to this game because I'm not just doing it for myself – it's really to show that women of color belong in this sport.
Achieving equal pay is so important because as a person of color, I've always realized that I'm fighting a fight for women, but I'm also fighting a very same fight for women of color, and I think it's very important to acknowledge that and to really represent all that I stand for.
What’s the impact of equal pay for someone who doesn’t play soccer?
Alex Morgan: Something we did that can transcend beyond sport is challenging the norm. Asking questions. Supporting each other in our quest for equal pay. And equal conditions. Because we banded together, because we really stood up together, we were stronger against our employer. I think that really helps show other women – or can inspire other women – to ask for more transparency in their own situation.
What are ways others can help support this movement?
Alex Morgan: One of the biggest things we needed was other people talking. If other people out there were talking about us – online, Twitter was a huge place for us to get support – the more pressure that put on our employer, on U.S. Soccer. Just the transparency and talking about it was probably the biggest thing that helped us get over the line.
Crystal Dunn: Now that the fight is won – I’m so proud and honored to say that – I truly believe that others can kind of join in by just one, being fans of the women's game, advocating for us to keep growing the women's game.
There's a World Cup this year, which I hope brings a lot of buzz to women's soccer, but overall, just people doing what's right. What we fought for doesn't just translate in the sports world. It translates throughout businesses, and whether you're a man or a woman or however you are defined, I think just remembering that it's important to do the right thing.
It's always important to fight for women. The women in your life, they matter. They need to be supported, and you don't have to be a woman in order to join in the fight.
2022 Women of the Year: See the inspiring stories from USA TODAY's 2022 honorees
Women of the Century: Many names you will know. Some you may not. All have something to teach us.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USWNT's Alex Morgan, Crystal Dunn on the fight for equal pay in soccer