On Monday, the U.S. women’s hockey team reached the semifinals of the World Championships, knocking out Finland 5-3 to earn a top seeding. The win wasn’t necessarily a surprise for the Americans, who entered ranked No. 6 in the world against their unranked opponents. But its occurrence so close to Equal Pay Day was a moment of symbolic resonance that didn’t go unnoticed by the team or its fans.
On the heels of a historic boycott at every level of the entire women’s hockey program, the victory was another symbolic step forward for a team that has long lived in the shadow of its male counterparts.
The team announced its intention to boycott the IIHF Women’s World Championship in early March after failing to agree to an increase in player salaries with the governing body of USA Hockey. The decision was bold and risky, especially for a group of players who barely make a sustainable income off paltry salaries from their spots on national and NHWL teams.
But it was a risk that the team felt was necessary. After 13 days, and only three nights before the first game of the world championship, USA Hockey released a joint statement detailing a new compromise. The deal might seem insufficient to some — salaries were raised from $1,000 a month to only $4,000 a month — but it was a far cry from the former stubbornness of USA Hockey in regard to equal treatment of its female players.
The ultimate lesson of the players’ boycott was simple — equality of treatment comes quickly with solidarity in protest.
The solidarity of the movement started with the women. Every single American women’s hockey player refused to suit up for the world championship. Starters, benchwarmers, third-stringers — not a single player broke rank. USA Hockey approached members of youth squads, reaching out all the way to the U16 athletes. Even the youngest stolidly refused to participate.
This level of cooperation in a boycott was shocking. It was quickly followed by other staples of women’s athletics in America, with legends like Billie Jean King and Mia Hamm lending their support.
But the most surprising and moving support of the movement came from the men’s side.
Within a week, statements released by the NHL, NBA, NFL and MLB stood behind the women’s team. Mike Eruzione, the famous captain of the “Miracle on Ice” squad that won the 1980 Olympics, defended the players, demanding that USA Hockey provide all of its players with livable wages. Twenty U.S. senators signed a letter in support of the team. And in a final back-breaking movement, starting members of the men’s team threatened to join the women in their boycott of the world championships if changes weren’t made.
It was a stunning show of support, one that is rare in the discussion of equitable wages between men’s and women’s teams. When the U.S. soccer team launched similar efforts last year, members of the men’s team openly voiced their distaste for the movement in interviews and social media posts. The reaction to the hockey team’s boycott was starkly different and displays the importance of cross-program and cross-sport support for any type of movement toward equality.
Perhaps it’s a sad reflection of the fact that male voices often echo more loudly. Or maybe it just fits the hierarchical importance of men’s and women’s sports, with the men’s hockey team bringing in significantly higher revenue than the women’s team. But nonetheless, the support given by male athletes and organizations helped to drive the women’s movement home, benefiting a team that has struggled for decades.
Without the national popularity that women’s sports such as soccer and gymnastics are afforded, women’s hockey is typically relegated to the back burner of American attention. Because of this, most Americans aren’t aware that players are forced to pick up part-time jobs to pay the bills and buy equipment, since the team doesn’t receive enough funding to buy sticks or gloves.
But the attention the team earned in the last two weeks is an important move forward in creating equal opportunities for female hockey players. The boycott’s hashtag (#BeBoldForChange) became a rallying cry for feminists throughout the country, and its results will lay the groundwork for a continuation of support for women who want to play the game.
And by standing with the women’s hockey team, each of these male organizations put itself on the right side of history. It’s a pattern that should serve as an example for the future.
Female athletes have battled for the right to play for generations, and they will continue to move mountains in their fight for equality. But when athletes stand together, male and female, in the fight for progress, change will be made more swiftly and athletics as a whole will continue to grow and flourish.
Julia Poe is a sophomore studying print and digital journalism. She is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Poe’s Perspective,” runs on Wednesdays.