Space Women

Being interested in space, and interested in Women's Rights, the following piece is worth repeating widely...


by Gloria Steinem

One recent night while switching TV channels, I happened onto Amadeus, the movie based on Mozart's life. I'd seen it before but without noticing it had obliterated Nannerl, Mozart's older sister. Only learning a little about women's history had introduced me to this other Mozart. Like him, she had been a child genius. Together, they travelled the courts of Europe performing at the command of their father. Until she was sent home to marry at fifteen or so, they were each other's only companions. In fact, we don't know whether some compositions attributed to Amadeus might really have been Nannerl's, as some musicologists speculate. Nonetheless she was to become a teacher of other musicians. Only from her brother's letters do we know he considered her the really talented one.

On that same night, through the century-skipping magic of television, I came upon The Right Stuff, a movie about the first United States astronauts. This time, I had not even a remedial history book to tell me what I was missing, but thanks to Joan McCullough's cover story in Ms. magazine, I was painfully aware of the on-screen absence of twenty-five female pilots who had been given the same tests as John Glenn and Alan Shepard. Thirteen had passed with flying colours. Indeed, one of them, Jerrie Cobb, had entered the program with twice as many air miles as John Glenn and emerged lucid from hours in a sensory deprivation tank that left one male astronaut crying and imagining he heard barking dogs. This first Mercury Program found that women in general were more resistant to radiation, less subject to heart attacks, and better able to endure extremes of heat, cold, pain, noise, and loneliness. Since women also weighed less than men in general and required less food and oxygen, they could have saved a lot of taxpayers' dollars in the very expensive per-pound business of launching a capsule into space. Nonetheless, this female success came as such a shock to NASA that its all-male officials simply decreed: no women. When two women candidates, Jerrie Cobb and pioneer helicopter pilot Jane Hart, fought back by organising a congressional hearing on this ban in 1962; John Glenn and Alan Shepard testified that women were unqualified because they had not met the jet-test requirements. (Never mind that women were not eligible for the military program that could have given them such experience.) A NASA spokesman was quoted as saying, "Talk of an American space woman makes me sick to my stomach." As Jerrie Cobb said after the subcommittee let NASA's no woman rule stand, yet failed to question its expensive training program for a chimp named Glenda: "Millions for chimps, but not one cent for women!"

Watching The Right Stuff so many years later, I wondered: What was wrong with including the true story of female astronauts? Would women's possession of "the right stuff" turn it into "the wrong stuff"?

I think the answer was a resounding yes. In 1963, I interviewed those first male astronauts about their history-making flight, and also about the Soviets' launching of a woman astronaut. A NASA spokesman referred to the latter event as "just a publicity stunt." The astronauts themselves compared her to their trained chimp. At the time, I hadn't questioned them about the fate of our thirteen female astronaut candidates for a simple reason: I didn't know they existed. If reported by the press at all, they had been trivialised and downplayed as "Astrotrix" and "Spacegals."

There's one more turn of the screw that tells the difficulty of recording women's history of the recent past, much less of past centuries. When Sally Ride -- an activist who made it very clear that only a massive women's movement had made her selection possible -- was scheduled to become the first woman in space, I invited Jane Hart to travel with me to the event at Cape Canaveral in Florida. I hoped that reporters would remedy history by interviewing her as a "backgrounder." Unfortunately, few were interested in Jane or those obscure, heroic thirteen. None cared about their continuing exploits. After raising eight children, for instance, Jane had sailed a small boat around the world. Jerrie Cobb had flown medical supplies, paid for by money she collected, in her own single engine plane up the Amazon River in Brazil to distribute to Indian tribes. Each woman had gone on trying to be the explorer and history-maker she was born to be. Yet most people still think that Sally Ride was the first U.S. woman qualified to be an astronaut.

Do these two examples surprise you? If so, brace yourself for more surprises and for anger at the incompleteness of our educations. All you have to do is spend a few hours with feminist historians like Gerda Lerner and Marilyn French, or study pre-patriarchal religions, or discover the power women had in the Dark Ages but lost in the "Renaissance" when misogynist classical texts were resurrected to oppose them, or read of African warrior queens who fought colonial invaders, or Native American "councils of grandmothers" who chose male chiefs and decided the issues of war and peace. In contrast, the few women who show up in history books are likely to be the mothers or wives of famous men. From a patriarchal point of view, they are playing the "right" roles, and they are also likely to be of the "right" colour, class, age, sexuality, or part of the world. Perhaps the slogan on a current button sums it up best. "The truth will set you free. But first, it will make you mad."

Nevertheless, the truth will set you free. Looking at the world as if women mattered provides a long overdue understanding of how and why events take place. Men can learn that they needn't separate themselves from women -- or from supposedly "female" qualities within themselves -- to make history. Women can learn they have powers and talents that are released by self-authority, esteem for one's self, and respect for one's group. Both women and men benefit from the blossoming of the female half of the world.

But right now, there is still a reason why studies show, even among young women who have been the valedictorians of their high schools, intellectual self-esteem tends to diminish with every year of higher education. Once in college, female students see texts in which fewer and fewer women are visible, and are expected to obey forms of authority in which women are more and more rare. What we are learning is: Our place.

Human history isn't accurate or complete without women's history. It's for all year, every year, and must be integrated into every course. But even reading one book that describes the world as if women mattered can change the rest of your life.