Still cheering on (or even choking up over) the U.S. Women’s soccer team’s World Cup win? Then a new documentary debuting locally on Friday will be well worth watching.
The film, “Maiden,” tells the extraordinary story of the first all-female sailboat crew in the grueling 33,000-mile, nine-month, open-ocean Whitbread Round the World Race.
The Maiden — an apt appellation for its first and female status — was a scrappy boat skippered by a steely 26-year-old Tracy Edwards, whose crew faced closed minds and open ridicule from sexist sailors and salesmen unwilling to sponsor the vessel.
The film’s archival footage depicts perilous natural and institutional forces, like the treacherous Southern (or Antarctic) Ocean and a sailing culture that led one crusty journalist to deride the brave sailors as a “tin full of tarts.”
The grainy film and the ingrained chauvinism might make moviegoers think that the race took place long ago. But it was actually only in 1989.
So, in some sense, the progress is extraordinary three decades hence. After all, unlike back in the Maiden’s era, cheers, not jeers, met the U.S. soccer team, even before they won the Women’s World Cup. And afterward, marketers like Nike launched instant, inspiring commercials that were a celebration of both the powerful team and women’s empowerment overall.
Conversely, the Maiden crew couldn’t find any financial support in Great Britain, leading Edwards to mortgage her home (and future) to literally keep her ship afloat. And in a striking aspect to the story, she turned a random maritime meeting of Jordan’s King Hussein into a sponsorship appeal that the king obliged, giving Royal Jordanian Airlines a PR coup and making the monarchy look more modern than London.
As with any revolution, sociological, cultural and political components have combined to elevate women’s sports. And in the case of the U.S. — and because of America’s influence, the world — there was also a legal one: Title IX, the landmark legislation on equality that forever changed the game for girls and women in sport. When it was passed in 1972, LaVoi said, about one in 27 girls played sports. Today, it’s about one in three.
“It’s hard to know for sure the direct impact on the current women’s World Cup team, but most advocates and scholars of women in sport would agree that it [Title IX] had a significant impact because all the women on that current team would not have had the opportunities that they currently have without it,” Nicole LaVoi, director of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport.
And it’s not just the U.S. team — several players from other countries played collegiately in America as a result of Title IX, said Sarah Axelson, senior director of advocacy for the New York-based Women’s Sports Foundation.
The law is a global “gold standard” of “legal fortitude,” LaVoi added.
Of course, the legal fortitude must be met by gutty play, and the U.S. squad’s grit was apparent throughout. Some questioned the grace, however, especially because of exuberant on-field celebrations, as well as star Megan Rapinoe’s equally emphatic plans to not celebrate at the White House. And there were other societal spillovers, like the open dispute over equitable treatment with the men’s team.
The media coverage of the controversies and competition was more “legitimate and serious,” and that “was a definite plus,” said LaVoi. But a minus was how “we also saw a lot of cultural narrative emerging around the policing and criticism of the athletes’ behavior, whether that was too celebratory, too arrogant, too cocky, too brash — fill in the adjective. Which was very troubling to me and those of us who advocate for women’s sports because there is a gender bias and sexist undertone to the criticism.”
Both LaVoi and Axelson expressed hope that this year’s World Cup is a women’s sports “tipping point.” And yet, mused Axelson, “I think it’s hard to know if you’re in a tipping point if you’re in the moment.”
In fact, added Axelson, “We’ve seen plenty of moments over the years that feels like ‘this could be it.’ I am hopeful that this is a tipping point, and I certainly think that one example that this is building momentum and getting bigger are the [fans’] chants for equal pay. ... This is something that is no longer just the athletes asking for it; it is society putting pressure on these governance organizations as well.”
Social justice and equity, Axelson said, “can often feel like it moves slowly, and you take the wins where you get them, and you are encouraged, and you take the energy from the display of what has happened with this World Cup. So I’m excited to see where it goes next.”
As “Maiden” portrays it, skipper Tracy Edwards’ focus on what came next was mostly immediate, including deadly swells and icebergs. But there’s a connection from the ship’s pitch to the soccer pitch where the World Cup was won on Sunday.
“There’s a lot of comparisons when we look at the long narrative of women fighting for equity and equality within sports, not just from the pay side but from recognizing that women can compete at the highest level — even alongside men — to have their achievements recognized and to have their abilities recognized,” said Axelson’s colleague Lauren Lubin April, the foundation’s senior director of community impact.
Lubin April, who has screened “Maiden” twice (from “the edge of my seat”), said that “What the Maiden team was able to do back then was to really solidify that, ‘Yes, we can do this, we can compete among the best as women, not because we’re women but because we’re just great sailors.’
“And I think that similarly the current women’s soccer team is trying to push the conversation forward as well, saying, ‘Yes, we can do this, we can compete on the biggest stage, we can sell out arenas just like the men, we can unite nations and bring all these people together because we’re great athletes and people want to see us compete.’”
Watching the film, Lubin April “really recognized how important it was that they did what they did because of the climate and culture they were existing in; it was necessary. And they really were part of the changes that are occurring today.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.