WHEN Sally Ride was set to fly on the space shuttle Challenger in 1983 and thus become the first [American] woman in space, Gloria Steinem said, “Millions of little girls are going to sit by their television sets and see they can be astronauts, heroes, explorers and scientists.”
This was of course a ridiculous statement. How many little girls had ever wanted to be astronauts? About as many who longed to be soldiers or fighter pilots. In other words, very few. Steinem’s real point, in keeping with her intense dislike of women, was that women should want to be astronauts and there was something wrong with them if they didn’t.
Ride, who had a warm, radiant smile and is said to have served ably in her two missions in space, died Monday at the age of 61. For all the fanfare that once surrounded it, Ride’s story will likely fade into history and her life ultimately inspire very few girls. This will be so not only because women do not excel at space science or the physical demands of space travel as men do but also because, as Ride’s obituary proved, she did not lead a full life. Ride was in a lesbian relationship with a childhood friend for 27 years.
To her credit, Ride did not make her lesbianism public and was private about her personal life in general. Her sister and the woman with whom she had a relationship, Tam O’Shaughnessy, have released the information to the world and now Ride has the double distinction of being both the first woman and the first lesbian in space. O’Shaughnessy was Ride’s friend since the age of 12. Ride was briefly married to another astronaut, but they were divorced. So while Ride accomplished much in her career, thanks in part to the spirit of affirmative action, she seems to have never fully emerged from childhood.
The only good reason for a normal woman to go through the grueling rigors of becoming an astronaut is that NASA is a great place to meet men. Ride’s life, however, does not even offer that slim hope to little girls, that wonderful compensation for dreary days in a control cabin. Ride flew into space but never experienced other thrills that are as great or far greater. She never gave a man such necessary and life-sustaining love that he was able to do great things, such as fly into space. She never looked up at the stars with her own children and encouraged their wonder. She did not pass on her love of space to a son or daughter or grandchild.
Though she performed capably in her public position as a Role Model of the Century, Sally Ride’s example will likely be the exact opposite of what NASA and Gloria Steinem predicted. She will serve as a reminder of at least some of the very good reasons why women don’t want to be astronauts. The vast majority of women would sooner love an astronaut than be one. And given that most men are destined to perform inglorious jobs for most of their lives, women will come to see that the dream of conquering space rightly belongs to men.
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