Women have scored big in the past few weeks with the U.S. Women's Soccer team winning the World Cup and Serena Williams' singles championship at Wimbledon. Men and women were cheering these athletes to victory, making the women's World Cup the most watched soccer game in history, male or female. The last time the U.S. women won the title was 1999, and in the intervening 16 years, we would like to think that women have made great headway. Comparing the treatment of the World Cup players with that of Serena Williams, it begs the question of how far women have come.
Let's start with the appalling fact that the winning Women's Team was paid a mere $2 million compared to the $35 million awarded to the German men's team, which won the male division. Disparity in pay between men's and women's sports is not new. Billie Jean King was lobbying for comparable prizes for men's and women's tennis competitions in the early 1970s. Yet, here we are in 2015, and the women soccer players took home 5.7 percent of what the guys did.
Also rearing its head is the criticism that the women soccer players should appear more "feminine." An official of the Brazilian women's football (soccer) suggested that if the players looked better by wearing make-up, doing their hair and wearing shorter shorts, they would meet with more success. This reflects an earlier statement by FIFA President Sepp Blatter that they could wear "tighter shorts." Blatter has been ousted but seeks to return.
From the earliest forays into athletics, the media and the public in general have had a push-pull with women in sports. In the late 19th century, there was great enthusiasm for women's participation in baseball, basketball, rowing tennis and track but conflicts arose around women appearing masculine by "sweating, running and competing." Tennis champion Helen Wills Moody won eight Wimbledon singles titles between 1927 and 1938, yet the media criticized her for being "too intense" by derogatorily calling her "Little Miss Poker Face." Again in the 1940s, golfer Mildred "Babe" Didrickson had a highly successful winning streak which brought claims of her appearing too masculine. She made attempts to soften her image by wearing more feminine clothing. The more successful they became, the more criticism they wrought.
In contrast to the white communities, African-Americans were more supportive of black women and competitive sports as a pathway to improve community health and build leadership. In 1960, Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals for track at the summer Olympics and Serena Williams' win at Wimbledon was her sixth, overtaking her sister Venus in the fourth round. For the first time, Serena's purse was equal to the men's prize, a fete over forty years in the making. As a sign that some things have not changed, she was accused of being "too masculine" and "too muscular."
The Women's World Cup team became the first women's sports team to have a ticker tape parade in New York. A few individual women Olympians -- Mary Lou Retton and Cheryl Miller -- have been hailed in the Wall Street canyons, but it was the first time a women's team was given the recognition previously reserved for the Giants and Yankees. Would it have again gone unnoticed but for Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer who collected signatures on a letter to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio calling for the parade? Women in key political positions are more likely to reach out and help other women.
The World Cup and Williams' Wimbledon victories are two for the history books. They will inspire generations to come to reach for greater heights... but only if the information is accessible. In another week or month, both will be sidelined. Very little of women's history makes it into the history books. A national women's history museum is needed at the National Mall in Washington, DC to preserve the record of successes and challenges and share those stories with the public. The National Women's History Museum will provide a legacy so generations to come can be inspired by women from the past.
The National Women's History Museum shines a light on the disparate treatment of women. While undeniably women have made progress, it is one laborious step at a time. Equal pay in tennis does not translate to equal pay in soccer or basketball or for corporate CEOs, for that matter. It may be 2015 but we still have a ways to go.