Magazine article The American Prospect

Sally Ride and the Burdens of "The First": The Price Paid Back on Earth by Space's Woman Pioneer

Magazine article The American Prospect

Sally Ride and the Burdens of "The First": The Price Paid Back on Earth by Space's Woman Pioneer

Article excerpt



Simon & Schuster


When one of Sally Ride's college friends inquired about her astrophysics major, Ride replied simply, "It's about space." Yet she claimed she didn't always aspire to be an astronaut. The space program was still a closed-door club--inaccessible to her--when she went through school in the early 1970s. Ride was content to pursue an academic career until NASA undertook a nationwide effort to recruit women and let them know the club had room for more than white male fighter pilots. Then and only then did she start itching for orbit.

Many biographers are tempted to characterize history-making Americans as born rebels who knew from the beginning that they wanted to storm the gates. What's refreshing about Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space is that Lynn Sherr paints an evenhanded portrait of Ride as an iconic American whose accomplishments are inseparable from the second-wave feminist moment in which she reached them. The two women became friends when Sherr covered the space program for ABC News, and Sherr is clearly proud of having rubbed elbows with her. (Sherr, who has some name-dropping tendencies, also mentions introducing Ride to Betty Friedan.) Ride was unapologetically feminist, but she didn't make career choices with politics in mind. She followed her interests. "I think she was twenty years ahead of her time in her absolutely unstated demand to be treated as an equal," an early college boyfriend tells Sherr. "She just asserted herself in a way that said, 'I'm here and I'm capable and I'm doing it.'"

RIDE'S FIRST WORD was "No." As a young child growing up in Southern California, she called herself "Sassy." Playing shortstop for the Dodgers was, her mother told her, the only thing she couldn't do as a girl. Ride was a high-school and college tennis champ years before Title IX mandated that those programs be fairly funded and that schools dole out sports scholarships to women in equal measure to men, and she was the only woman in her first undergraduate physics classes. In 1970--the year she transferred to Stanford, where she would go on to complete her bachelor's degree and earn a master's and a Ph.D.--only about 3 percent of doctoral candidates in physics nationwide were women. (This hasn't changed dramatically. The New York Times reported last year that "one-fifth of physics Ph.D.'s in this country are awarded to women, and only about half of those women are American.")

Ride's research was in astrophysics, and she had paid attention to headlines about the men of Apollo 11 training for America's first space missions in the 1960s--a bravado-heavy group mythologized by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff. At the same time the "Right Stuff' guys were training in the California desert, a group of female pilots--the so-called Mercury 13--were also going through rounds of testing to determine their fitness for space. When the program was abruptly canceled, the women would not go quietly. In 1962, they lobbied Vice President Lyndon Johnson, a champion of the space program, urging him to sign a letter declaring that "sex should not be a reason for disqualifying a candidate for orbital flight." Johnson answered that the matter was out of his hands, adding to the bottom of a draft letter, "Let's stop this now!"--"this" being the conversation about women in space, not sexism at NASA.

It wasn't until ten years later, after the passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, that NASA, forced to consider women, created a diversity hiring initiative. At around the same time, the agency created a new category of astronaut to join pilots on space flights. This shift meant everything for women. Where astronauts had previously been culled from the ranks of male fighter pilots, a "mission specialist" could be any highly trained individual with relevant expertise. …

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