(Jaren Wilkey | BYU) The BYU women's soccer team celebrates a win over defending champs Santa Clara.
I would like to offer a heartfelt congratulations to the Brigham Young University women’s soccer team for their outstanding season and runner-up finish in the NCAA national championship. This is truly a remarkable achievement — and I cried after Cameron Tucker’s game-winning goal against Virginia in the Sweet 16.
Admittedly, I played soccer for the University of Utah and always cheer against BYU in rivalry matches. Nevertheless, the older I get, the more apparent it becomes how important BYU women’s soccer was in my life and how important it continues to be as a model of femininity within our Utah community.
Growing up in Provo during the early 2000s, the BYU women’s soccer games were 90 minutes of permissibly defied female stereotypes. There on the pitch women were confrontational. They were aggressive and fierce; strong and courageous; brilliant and ambitious. I idolized these women and so desperately needed the alternative version of Latter-day Saint femininity they personified — one that allowed for complexity in the experience and demonstration of womanhood.
That’s how I felt at least. Although I can’t speak for everyone, the fact that BYU led the nation in 2019 for women’s soccer average home game attendance at 2,945 spectators per game suggests others are similarly drawn to something this team exemplifies. One explanation could be that the slide tackles through the mud and 80-yard headers fill some sort of cultural void, such that an entire community will pack the stands to both witness and celebrate women who are acting neither calmly nor gently.
Sitting in the stands over the years I have witnessed the hair-raising power of thousands of voices united in encouragement, pride, and defense of these women. Though, perhaps, the most powerful moments I have witnessed are when parents lean down to their daughters and ask, “Did you see that?” or alternatively, “You can do that too, you know.”
I remember what it was like as a high-schooler who wanted nothing else than to play soccer for BYU, to have that crowd know my name and cheer me on. But the memory of that crowd, and the contrast once the game is over, also makes me sad.
After my college career ended, I devoted the same traits I learned on the soccer field to becoming a physician in obstetrics and gynecology. But, unlike my soccer career, that path has been lonely and silent. Rather than cheers, there have been microaggressions in the form of well-intentioned inquisitions into how I can be available for dating, marriage and children. My professional Latter-day Saint female mentors can be counted on fewer than three fingers. And I have been called a “unicorn” — a term used by medical school admission committees for Latter-day Saint female applicants because they are such a rare find that many jokingly wonder if they exist at all.
As a community, we officially endorse gender equality, but in reality, we are far from it. Utah consistently ranks as the worst state for women’s equality when examining factors such as income, attainment of higher education, political representation and numbers of women in professional and managerial occupations.
I do not believe this inequality is from lack of desire, but rather from lack of representation, from the simplification of womanhood and from a faithless belief that motherhood can only be successfully accomplished in one, prescribed way. It fascinates me that the same characteristics we celebrate in female soccer players — their authority, aggression and grit — are rarely encouraged and modeled for girls in non-athletic applications.
Imagine if women applying into graduate school, law school or medical school had the enthusiasm and support of a BYU women’s soccer crowd. Imagine if we heckled the nay-sayers of a woman running for office the way we heckle referees giving our players a yellow card. Imagine our girls consumed by dreams of being the best in all types of fields, not just the soccer kind.
To the BYU women’s soccer team: We are so proud of you and your stunning season. But more than that, we are proud that you are the object of dreams for countless girls, reaching far beyond soccer. Keep being the complex, permission-giving women that you are. This community needs you.
Kellie Woodfield, M.D., is a former University of Utah soccer player (2008-2010) and current obstetrics and gynecology resident at the University of Utah.
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