When the United States women’s national team took the field to play England in the second game of the 2019 SheBelieves Cup, there was something slightly different about their uniforms, which you can see above in the header image.
That is not Serena Williams, HRH Beyoncé, or Sally Ride, as fun as it might be to imagine them all playing in a game. On Saturday, USWNT players picked the name of a woman who inspires them, and wore that woman’s name on their jersey. It gave us quite a list of very different women with very different lives and histories.
Reactions ranged from why-can’t-you-just-support-them to her?-really?; from unabashedly enthusiastic to wary of a cynical PR ploy (you’ll let Megan Rapinoe wear Black lesbian civil rights activist and icon Audre Lorde’s name, but you won’t let her kneel in support of ending state violence against Black people?). Cynicism is certainly not unfounded when it comes to US Soccer, and the commodification of feminism is a legitimate concern, but for today we’re unpacking the way this gesture made people feel and why.
The varying reactions perhaps represented the complexity of the situation - that this could be both a PR move allowed by US Soccer because it made them look like woke allies of feminism, but could also be a genuine, heartfelt message from the players in a tournament that has always brought out a kind of earnestly enthusiastic girl-power spirit.
Feminism itself doesn’t necessarily have a set definition - often the catchall of “equality for women” is used but there are various modes of thought around what that equality looks like, how to achieve equality and for whom, and if equality within the existing socioeconomic frameworks of various global cultures is even desirable as opposed to completely dismantling the frameworks themselves. Feminism and its goals may mean one thing to a cis, white, heterosexual, able-bodied woman and something vastly different to a queer disabled WOC. There are a spectrum of identities, all of which intersect in different ways and have different consequences.
Which brings us to the list of very different women provided by USWNT players as inspirational figures. The list certainly runs the gamut - actresses, activists, an astronaut, a Supreme Court justice, and more. There was a certain snideness in regards to some of the picks - that some of them weren’t “as important” as the others. And in a certain framework, you can certainly say that Ruth Bader Ginsburg has done more with her life that affects more people than, for example, Jennifer Lawrence. But there are a lot of facets of this attitude, both good and bad, that should be examined if we’re to truly get something from this symbolic act.
On one side, ranking the women on the list is a subset of purity politics, those requirements that someone be a perfect exemplar in order to be worthy of praise. No one woman on that list has led a morally perfect life, simply by the fact of being a human being with human faults, surrounded by a similarly imperfect society. Ranking also doesn’t allow that women can lead different lives without having to be role models all the time, and it doesn’t allow that there can be different ways to inspire.
And it certainly doesn’t allow that asking women to do the work of consciousness raising all the time is exhausting - sometimes you just don’t have the stamina to educate yet another person on something that is already a huge part of your life, let alone empower them. The work of actual empowerment takes energy, because, as the word suggests, it is about the generating and giving of power.
Let’s ask the question then: as an act of female empowerment - and it is arguable that is not actually any such thing due to its wholly symbolic nature - to whom did this gesture give power? What kind of power? What has this enabled other women to do? Answering those questions once again may depend very much on the intersection of a woman’s identities - is she poor, is she queer, is she white, is she American. Seeing someone else wear a jersey with a name on it may not actually enable a woman to do much. Or, through the act of education, it may lay out the pathway for a woman to consider the nature of power and how she desires to interact with those systems shaped by who has power and why.
On another side, critical examination of anyone held up to be a role model is not a bad thing. While no one is 100% morally perfect all the time, some of those women have done objectively problematic things. J.K. Rowling has liked transphobic tweets on twitter, defended the casting of domestic abuser Johnny Depp in the Fantastic Beasts movies, written insensitively about minority cultures as part of the wizarding world, and more. Tina Fey’s TV show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has been accused of marginalizing the portrayal of Native Americans for a joke and focused an entire episode on dismissing Asian protesters objecting to yellowface in a play, after which Fey further dismissed criticism of that episode by saying she was “opting out” of a “real culture of demanding apologies.” Mother Teresa herself has been accused of providing substandard care in her facilities and secretly baptizing dying patients regardless of their religion.
It’s important to grapple with these issues - issues of racism, transphobia, misogyny, classism, and more - because these are women’s issues. You cannot separate out feminism from dealing with other forms of bigotry. In the words of Kimberlé Crenshaw, “It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.” Crenshaw originally established the concept of “intersectionality” specifically to address the problem of trying to treat race and gender as “mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis,” but we can extend it further to encompass other identities and intersections.
So what does this all mean in terms of 23 American soccer players wearing 23 different women’s names on their jerseys in a friendly game, in a tournament called “SheBelieves,” in a job that has traditionally not welcomed women? It’s not important to boil the situation down to one definitive answer - that’s impossible. It is important to be able to witness the moment and understand the layers at work here; when we have the concepts and words to talk about why and how women occupy different spaces in the world, it’s easier to figure out how to progress, how to protect or change or dismantle our spaces. The concepts Crenshaw discusses can be applied to examining who each player chose and how their own lived experiences may have influenced their choice, and how our own lived experiences influence our perceptions and standards. SheBelieves is a fun tournament; if you have the time, take your beliefs a few steps further. If you are willing to examine your reactions to who we hold up as role models and why, then win or lose, the tournament was a success.