After the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team's success in this year’s Women’s World Cup and the team's fight for equal pay captivated millions around the world, the Burlington High School (BHS) girls soccer team decided to take their inspiration to a new level. Beginning with a campaign to sell jerseys bearing the hashtag #equalpay for a game under the lights at Burlington on Friday, Oct. 18, their message for equal pay for women has since garnered national and international media attention, including appearances on "Good Morning America," NBC News and CNN’s "Anderson Cooper Full Circle."
The idea for the jerseys started over the summer, with the U.S. women’s national soccer team victory and subsequent lawsuit against U.S. Soccer for equal pay compared to their male counterparts. Members of the Burlington team initially planned for a team dress-up day with fabric markers, but ended up partnering with Change the Story VT to make and sell jerseys. They donated proceeds from the jersey sales to the Greater Burlington Girls Soccer League (GBGSL), a recreational soccer league for young girls in the area with which many members of the team grew up playing.
Maia Vota, one of the team’s captains and a senior at BHS, created a short promotional video in advance of the equal pay game.
“At the time, the goal was to get a lot of people wearing the equal pay jerseys for our game [last] Friday and see how many people we could get out there wearing them,” Vota said. In the project’s early stages, the boys soccer team at BHS also wore the jerseys, while warming up at a recent game.
Change the Story helped take the project to the next level, she said.
“I think working with Change the Story was really helpful in teaching us how to reach out to sponsors, getting the language we could use and building up our confidence,” she said.
Change the Story is a state-wide initiative of three partner organizations that aims to fast-track women’s economic status in the state, according to Consultant for Strategy & Partnerships Jessica Nordhaus. Over the past few years, the initiative has collected data and found that the Vermont wage gap between women and men is 16 cents, slightly lower than other states in the nation.
Nordhaus noted that the wage gap in Vermont has been hovering between 14 and 17 cents for the last 10–15 years, meaning that on average, women make between 83 and 86 cents for every dollar a man makes.
“We’re not making progress quickly enough and closing it,” she told The Campus.
Some calculations have the gender wage gap in Vermont not closing until 2048, and the World Economic Forum says the gender pay gap will take over 200 years to close.
“Our stake in this is that we want Maia and Lydia and their teammates and all girls their age when they’re in the workforce to be paid equally and valued equally,” Nordhaus said.
A yellow card for equal pay
Friday night’s game was not only the debut of the equal pay jerseys — it was also the team’s senior night and last regular season game before the playoffs. The Seahorses played their crosstown rivals, South Burlington High School, and the score remained 0–0 for until less than five minutes to play, when senior Helen Worden scored a goal at the back of the net. In celebration, several of the players peeled off their blue uniforms and showed their equal pay jerseys to a roaring crowd.
Lydia Sheeser, a freshman at BHS and Nordhaus’ daughter, said the decision to take off her jersey was spontaneous.
“In the excitement we wanted to celebrate with our fans on this big night,” she said.
The moment came at a cost, however, since any player who takes off her jersey off during a game automatically earns a yellow card. This was frustrating in the moment, Sheeser said, but she and her teammates were excited in the aftermath.
“I heard the crowd behind us chanting ‘equal pay,’ and that was really empowering to know that there was everyone behind us,” she said.
With 1:48 left in the game, South Burlington answered BHS’s lead with a corner kick, bringing the score to a 1–1 tie. While the game ended, the energetic crowd brought the atmosphere to a whole new level.
“Everyone was really amped up that it was the night to recognize the equal pay jerseys,” Vota said.
The team sold #equalpay jerseys at the game, and they are now available online. Each one costs $25, while men are invited to pay an extra $4.80 for the shirts, representing Vermont's gender wage gap.
After Friday’s game, many of the players on South Burlington’s team bought the jerseys as well. According to Nordhaus, one of the most notable orders of their 2,500 sold online came from the referee who penalized the team at the game.
“We saw in the comments, ‘I’m the ref who gave you the yellow card. I look forward to wearing my jersey,’” she said.
With the proceeds from the jerseys, the team hopes to work with GBGSL to diversify girls’ youth soccer in Burlington. Teammates hope proceeds can provide the league with some sort of transportation, mentorship or scholarship program to their younger female counterparts at GBGSL, which has previously had trouble representing the demographics of Burlington.
For the girls on the team, the connection is deeply personal.
“We had a bunch of the GBGSL girls come to our game on Friday and so we’re hoping they’ll see us standing up for equal pay and hopefully be inspired like we were by the U.S women’s national team,” Vota said.
And the crowd goes wild!
The campaign in Burlington has rippled its way through national and international media, with the team being covered in the UK’s Daily Mail, CBS and NPR, among many others.
One of the earliest major news outlets to cover the story was ABC’s "Good Morning America." Nordhaus was at Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy’s (D) Women’s Economic Opportunity Conference on Saturday, Oct. 19 in Randolph when she received a message from Sheeser and Vota saying that a camera crew would be coming up to Burlington to film the segment on Saturday night to air the next morning.
“Once we read [the message from Good Morning America], we freaked out and didn’t know exactly what to do,” Vota said.
Anderson Cooper speaks with members of a girls' soccer team penalized for wearing 'Equal Pay' shirts. Watch "Full Circle" every weeknight at 5pm E.T.
The team has also garnered support of local and national politicians.
After a recent game, senior captain Maggie Barlow was at a local bagel shop near the high school and ran into John Tracy, Senator Leahy’s state director in Vermont. Having heard about the campaign, “[the Leahys] bought [the jerseys] from us and took a picture of them standing in front of the Capitol with their jerseys and that was really cool,” Sheeser said.
— Sen. Patrick Leahy (@SenatorLeahy) October 16, 2019
Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Representative Peter Welch (D-VT) have chimed in, too.
"Congratulations to the Burlington High School women's soccer team on taking this courageous step,” Sanders tweeted on Monday. “Where can I get one of these shirts?” Gillibrand asked on Twitter. “Kirsten — I’ll see you on the floor in a few minutes during the votes and will fill you in about the team’s #EqualPay jersey project,” Leahy replied.
Tennis legend Billie Jean King and professional soccer players and former Women’s World Cup stars Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain also expressed their support for the team. “A great first step toward a sustainable future for ALL women’s sports, & limitless careers for women in athletics,” King tweeted. "Proud of you!" Chastain said.
Cheers to this VT varsity soccer team for showing their support for #equalpay. A great first step toward a sustainable future for ALL women’s sports, & limitless careers for women in athletics. Bold, gutsy & brave. No risk, no reward! #GoForIt #KeepPlaying https://t.co/x5HVis84WE
— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) October 21, 2019
Even Hillary Clinton weighed in on the team’s drive for equal pay. “I’m with them,” she said on Twitter, sharing a CNN article covering the girls’ campaign.
Members of BHS’ faculty, staff and administration have also been supportive of the campaign. District Superintendent Yaw Obeng sees the campaign as an incredible learning opportunity for the high school.
“This is a real live showcase of student leadership,” he said. “People see them as leaders and heroes … These are excellent examples of the type of graduates we want for our institution.”
Faculty and staff have met to discuss ways they can best support members of the team in the wake of widespread media coverage, including making guidance counselors available and even turning the assistant principal’s office into a communication headquarters for interviews and live broadcasts. “Really giving the girls the space and platform has been huge,” District Communications Specialist Russ Elek said.
Obeng is happy that students have found a way to join the national conversation, and said that the campaign serves as a reminder for his district's ongoing compensation and diversity planning initiatives.
“These are our kids. These are Burlington kids. This is what Burlington students stand for,” he said. “This is the real litmus test if we’re actually cultivating the type of courageous people we want.”
Hitting close to home
In addition to fulfilling over 2,500 jersey orders from all over the world, the team intends to continue the fight for equal pay in the future. “I think most importantly, this issue isn’t just about soccer, and it’s really important we keep this going after the season ends,” Vota said. “From what I’ve heard from the team, everybody’s on board to do that.”
The team currently wears the jerseys warming up before and cooling down after their games and has advanced to the semifinal of the Vermont Principals’ Association Division I state tournament.
With the help of Change the Story, the team anticipates going on a tour around the state to help inspire other young women to do the same.
Although the wage gap does not currently affect the girls on the team, the campaign for equal pay resonates with them in deeply personal ways. “In the end we realized that we just want equal recognition,” Sheeser said. “It’s a pretty personal cause because it’s going to be affecting us directly in a few years,” referring to their entry into the professional sphere post-graduation.
“This soccer team and these young women certainly qualify as changemakers,” Nordhaus said. “We have been very inspired by them and we just couldn’t be more honored to support their efforts.”
Like many of her teammates, Vota looks up to the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team. “Knowing that they’re not being paid equally has me sit back and realize, ‘Where am I going to be when I’m that age?’” she said.
With their jersey campaign, the girls soccer team hopes to inspire those around the world to take a stand for equal pay.
“It’s so cool to see people on the national level take interest in this but it’s equally amazing to see that people in Vermont are also wanting to keep up with what’s happening,” Sheeser said.
“I know that’s a little bit scary to look into my future and see that I’m not going to be making what I’m truly earning," she added.