The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Just Won Equal Pay—Cue the Misogynist Backlash

It seems a number of men on the internet are outraged by the suggestion that women athletes might be deserving of equal pay.

United States fans hold up an equal pay sign in game action during an international friendly match between the United States woman’s national team and the New Zealand women’s national team on May 16, 2019, at Busch Stadium, in St. Louis, Mo. (Robin Alam / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Last month, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team (USWNT) announced a deal that guarantees women and men who play for the national teams will receive the same compensation opportunities. The USWNT has been agitating for equal pay for the last six years, as have fans. (During the 2019 World Cup, after the women’s team’s won fourth World Cup victory, the stadium erupted with chants for “equal pay! Equal pay!”)

While feminists and other USWNT fans celebrated the decision, not unexpectedly, misogynists came roaring back with cries of “Unfair!” “Wokeness!” “Biology!” The comments on the New York Times and Washington Post articles announcing the agreement and on Twitter are enlightening. According to these misogynists, women soccer players (and other athletes, particularly in the WNBA and tennis) do not deserve equal pay because:

  1. they are biologically inferior, and therefore their games are not as good as the men’s; and
  2. the men, who are biologically better athletes, generate more revenue because they are more exciting to watch and therefore that revenue should stay with them.

Equal Pay for Unequal Work?

One reader from New Jersey summed it up, “Equal pay for unequal abilities. Seems equitable.” Another added, “That is totally unfair to the men. The men are so much better. In that case just one league and I guarantee you all the women’ teams would be at the bottom. It’s called biology.” Marty from Florida astutely pointed out that since women play women and men play men, the work is somehow not equal: “I’m all for equal pay for equal work, but the women’s team plays against women only. The men’s team has to play against men. That is not equal work. That is a double standard.”

The argument that women’s work in sports is not equal work was widespread. One person made the connection to a larger misogyny apparent:

“It’s not about equal pay for equal work. It’s equal pay for men and women, no matter what they actually produce. Women don’t need to compete directly with men on the same field, they just need to be better than other women. I think the same principle is desired for all fields, medicine, law, engineering, the best women should get the same pay as the best men, even if they aren’t able to do the job as well, they just need to be better than other women. 

“Keep that in mind the next time you hire a woman.”

A number of people outraged by the very suggestion that women athletes might be deserving of equal pay have pointed to a widely misreported supposed loss by the USWNT to an under-15 boys academy team. Merlin from Atlanta put it this way:

“Look at these facts. US Soccer Women’s team were defeated by a team of 15 year old high school boys from Texas. Pick any team of men’s College soccer and they will probably defeat US Women’s team. We can enjoy women’s sports, but the rigor is not the same as men’s competition.”

What Merlin and others don’t seem to understand is that the “match” between the USWNT and the boys was a scrimmage that’s a typical part of soccer academy development programs. It was an informal practice to give young players an opportunity to take the pitch with professionals and learn from them.

Many tweeters took to social media to reiterate Merlin’s last point: Women athletes don’t generate as much revenue as men and therefore should not be paid as much. “They take from men’s winnings,” one tweeted.

Not so fast, Twitterverse.

The reality is that, following their World Cup victory in 2015, the USWNT did generate slightly more revenue than the USMNT over the next three years, as reported by the less-than-feminist Wall Street Journal.

We also have to look at why women’s sports don’t generate as much revenue as the men’s—and, no, Merlin, it’s not simply because the men are better. The men who run the world of sports set women’s sports up.

Networks don’t televise women’s sports and argue people don’t watch. But, surprise, surprise, televise women athletes, and people do tune in. And when people tune in, major sponsors line up to buy advertising and generate revenue—Disney, Apple, AT&T and General Motors, to name just a few.

And, as the Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins argues, the NCAA’s treatment of women athletes is a “shell game.” Until this year, the women couldn’t call their tournament “March Madness” and so missed out on the inevitable revenue generation that moniker allows. Then the NCAA uses an utterly opaque bookkeeping process that obscures how much women athletes really do generate.

So, no, Merlin, it’s really not a matter of men being better athletes. It’s about men believing men are better athletes—then conspiring to make it so.

Stealing from the Men

This sense that the women were stealing men’s hard-earned income was also a common refrain. A number of people argued that the men were now “subsidizing” the women. Once commenter called the agreement “economic welfare in sports.” Another called it a “gender tax” and another “extortion.”

Someone else tweeted, “The men’s team is carrying the women’s team just like with the NBA….what a joke” Another tweeted: “Congrats now you are a charity that takes from the mens earnings.” And another commented, “The XYs are subsidizing the XXs. Heavily. Is that what women want?”

Marcy from Texas made this case: “This was a very poor judgment by a judge who seems to have been swayed by woke ideology and not reason. This won’t be the end of this.”

So here’s the deal. FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, has a significantly bigger pool of prize money for the men’s World Cup than for the women’s. In the last World Cup, the USWNT earned $4 million, while the winner of the men’s championship (France) got $38 million. For 2023, FIFA has said it would double the women’s pool, but even if the U.S. women win they’ll get $7 million while the USMNT will get $13 million if they just make it to the round of 16.

That won’t matter now because the two teams will pool their World Cup prize winnings and split them equally. That might look like a bad deal for the men—but, in 2018 when the men failed to make the tournament, they would have shared in the women’s earnings from their 2019 championship.

Selfish, Bullies and Liars

Not surprisingly, these women who advocated for themselves are being branded as “selfish,” “bullies” and “liars,” as are most women who demand equal pay. One observer tweeted, “I don’t like the attitude of these women. They come off as having been selfish spoiled children, who are now selfish spoiled adults.”

Another declared, “I stopped watching these selfish players the moment they disrespected the name on the front of their jerseys. I root against you now. I truly hope you never win another match.”

Another common refrain was to call the the victorious players “bullies.” An observer from Kansas City wrote, “I can barely comprehend this as an outcome to this whole absurd situation. I’d love to hear the full details of how the U.S. Men’s team was strong-armed into giving up income to ‘solve’ this situation.” One tweeter explained, “Congrats on bullying your way into money you are not playing for.”

The notion that women demanding equal pay is ‘whining’ was another common theme across the responses. One commenter asked, “Will the female soccer players stop whining now?” Another argued, “The world runs on money, not whining. It appears if you whine long enough, you can get your way.”

And this gem offers an analogy: “Ever hear the one about the whiny girlfriend who won’t stop complaining, so the boyfriend finally gives her his credit card and tells her to go to the mall, so that he can have some peace and quiet?”

Other observers suggested the women had lied about their previous contract deals: “WNT misrepresented the financial details throughout this entire process. If you actually do the math, there was equal pay all along. I won’t be interested in the WNT anytime soon.”

Another suggested the USWNT lied to secure the men’s money in a return to the economics of women’s dependency on men: “4 years of lies …Great lesson for girls, can’t prove your worth, latch on to a man for a handout..pre 1960’s logic.”

Other commenters suggested that the women should be more concerned about representing their country on the USWNT than their pay. They didn’t raise the same concern about the men. In response to a tweet by a USWNT soccer player saying she’d cheer a little louder for the USMNT now, one tweeter wrote, “So they didnt cheer when they scored before ? Wow anti Americans representing this country makes me sick! All they cared about was money and not the love for their country!”

And, of course, the misogyny wouldn’t be complete without a little homophobia thrown in for good measure: “Sucks if you are an MLS player not making much and you make the world cup squad and finally earn a big payday and have to give it to the lesbians.”

Yes, the poor MLS players. Their 2022 average base salary is a mere $438,728. For NWSL players, the minimum salary is $25,000, and the maximum is $75,000. Did I mention that the top men’s player has a base salary of $7.35 million with guaranteed compensation of $8.153 million?

The equal pay agreement only applies to the national teams, not to MLS and NWSL teams. It’s on top of regular salaries.

Of course, every woman who has ever stood up for herself knows what all of this feels like. As I tell my students: Inevitably, if you speak up on women’s issues, you’ll be called a lesbian—and, if you haven’t yet been called a lesbian, you’re not working hard enough.

Sacrificing Men

While the women are vilified for demanding equal pay, the men are valorized for agreeing to it.

Not surprisingly, many observers, including those who support the deal, praise the men for their unselfishness and sacrifice, as if they get nothing out of the deal and as if simply doing the right thing is somehow a noble and gracious act of largess. As one tweeter (who obviously doesn’t used spell-check) wrote, “Massive respect to usmnt for the scarifice [sic] so that these women get paid.” A commenter wrote, “Very generous of the men to give up money to the women.”

Again and again, commenters positioned men as losers in the agreement, as if women’s progress only comes at the expense of men. While the women are vilified for demanding equal pay, the men are valorized for agreeing to it.

It’s not as if the men have walked away from the deal with nothing. In the U.S., the USWNT is vastly more well-known and well-liked than the USMNT, and so the men stand to gain from the women’s alliance as the women can bring new fans and new revenue to the men.

In a couple of weeks when we’ve seen the likely overturning of Roe v. Wade, the cover-up of the sex abuse scandal among Southern Baptists, and two mass shootings by young men, debate over women’s soccer may seem like small potatoes. Yet, the misogynistic messages make clear that all of these events are of a piece—they all abundantly underscore the current moment’s backlash against feminist progress. Whether the issue is equal pay, reproductive justice, freedom from sexual violence, or safety in the grocery store, school or house of worship, women across our differences are facing renewed attack.

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.