Soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who has led the U.S. women's national team's fight for equal pay, said women do not have to "continue to be patient" on the issue of equal pay in testimony Wednesday before the House Oversight Committee.
"If it can happen to us and it can happen to me with the brightest lights shining on us at all times, it can and it does happen to every person who is marginalized by gender," Rapinoe said. "But we don’t have to wait. We don’t have to continue to be patient for decades on end."
"We can change that today. We can change that right now. We just have to want to. So, as always, LFG," she added, using an acronym popularized by athletes.
Rapinoe spoke out in a hearing focused on pay inequities between men and women -- and the proposals Democrats have put forward to close the gender pay gap.
The hearing took place on this year's Equal Pay Day, the day that women have to work into 2021 to make what white, non-Hispanic men earned on average in 2020 alone.
On average, women working full time, year-round are paid 82 cents for every dollar paid to men, according to the National Women's Law Center, a policy-focused organization that fights for gender justice.
"What we’ve learned and what we continue to learn is there’s no level of status, and there is no accomplishment or power, that will protect you from the clutches of inequality," Rapinoe said in her testimony. "One cannot simply outperform inequality or be excellent enough to escape discrimination of any kind."
"I’m here today because I know firsthand that this is true," she said.
The USWNT captain, who also plays for the OL Reign of the National Women's Soccer League, has long advocated for equal pay for female athletes, and she used the national team's World Cup run and victory to draw attention to the unequal distribution of prize money and resources between the men's and women's tournaments and national teams.
Rapinoe and other members of the women's national soccer team recently agreed to settle part of their lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation over claims of unequal working conditions, but are still appealing a decision on wage discriminations under the Equal Pay Act, according to ESPN.
"Time and time again, we were told simply, no, the only thing that was going to be available was less and far less, to be honest," Rapinoe said Wednesday, referring to the team's efforts to negotiate before filing the lawsuit. "This was the next best step that we could take, frankly."
"I think throughout the process, we’ve realized that, yes, we’re fighting for ourselves, and yes, we have our outstanding lawsuit with the U.S. Federation, but we’re with everyone. We’re with so many women across the country," she said. "We are with so many women who aren’t able to be in this committee hearing, who aren’t able to get the ear of the media, who do not have the bright lights and the cameras on them all the time. We are looking to carry this torch for so many other women."
Committee Chair Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., focused the hearing on disparities that have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
"Women without access to paid leave have been forced to decide whether to forego income or step back from their professions in order to care for themselves or their loved ones," she said in opening remarks obtained by ABC News.
The impact of the gender wage gap has been seen firsthand over the past year as the recession caused by the pandemic put more than 2 million women out of the workforce, many of them on shakier financial footing than their male counterparts because of the gap, experts say.
"We do our jobs and do it in the best way that we possibly can," Rapinoe said of the USWNT. "For all of us who work so hard and see how hard the men’s teams work and see how hard our teams work and know that’s equal, it’s just unacceptable that we’re still fighting for equal pay."
U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone responded to Rapinoe's testimony in a statement to ABC News.
"Megan has always represented the United States Women’s National Team and our country with honor and distinction. We thank and applaud Megan for being a champion for equal pay," said Parlow Cone. "With our new leadership at U.S. Soccer and so much to look forward to, my hope is the players will accept our standing invitation to meet and find a path forward that serves the women’s team now and in the future. We, too, are committed to equal pay."
"In the meantime, U.S. Soccer will continue to be a global leader in investing in women’s soccer to drive the growth of the women’s game across the world," she said.
The hearing also addressed the backlash faced by the NCAA for the sparse weight room provided to women's basketball players for the March Madness tournament, compared to the facilities set aside for the men's teams. The NCAA also provided different types of COVID-19 tests for the two tournaments, a decision that has been criticized by coaches and student athletes.
The NCAA apologized for the weight room disparities on Friday and upgraded the women's facility over the weekend.
Rapinoe called the situation "completely unacceptable" and called on the NCAA to "do better."
"Someone at some point thought to themselves that that was OK," she said of the setup in the women's weight room. "You even saw they had a GoPro set up to film the whole men’s gym being set up."
"You just simply have to do better," Rapinoe added. "Even the ‘new’ weight room that the women’s team has is still unacceptable. It’s not to the standard needed to perform at that level, and it’s certainly not to the standard of equal that the men have."
First Lady Jill Biden opens up about her experience with wage discrimination
Later Wednesday, Rapinoe and fellow USWNT star Margaret Purce joined President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden at the White House for an event to mark Equal Pay Day.
Purce, executive director of the Black Women's Player Collective, said it's time to "invest in women."
"My response is always this: You would never expect a flower to bloom without water," she said. "But women in sport who have been denied water, sunlight, and soil are somehow expected to blossom. Invest in women, then let's talk again when you see the return."
First Lady Jill Biden -- who made history as the first first lady to hold a paid job outside the White House -- detailed her own wage discrimination experience.
Jill Biden has been an educator for more than three decades and earned her doctorate in education from the University of Delaware in 2007. She taught English at Northern Virginia Community College during the eight years her husband served as vice president in the Obama administration.
She is continuing to teach at Northern Virginia Community College as first lady, but her office is not releasing any further details.
"When I got my first teaching job, I was thrilled. After years of getting my degree and substitute teaching, I was finally going to be able to start the career I had been dreaming about. And then I found out that they were paying me only 75% of what they were paying the man who was hired at the same time. I couldn’t believe it," the first lady will say at the Equal Pay Day event, according to a preview of her remarks released by Elle magazine.
"Why was my work worth less? We were working the same hours, teaching the same number of students and had similar experience," she said. "That was in 1975. And today, all these years later, there are women who are in the exact same position."
Jill Biden also touched on the effects of the pandemic on women in the workplace, as child care needs have forced many mothers to stay at home.
"How do we value women when they have to work three months and 24 days longer to make the same amount as their male colleagues? How do we value the Black and Latino women who have to work many months more, to make that same number? Equal work deserves equal pay, no matter who does it," she said.