The Thinking 

Sally Ride, and Why Women Don’t Want To Be Astronauts

July 24, 2012



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.

— Comments —

Matthew Schneider writes:

I agree completely with this post, but there’s one inaccuracy: Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space, not Sally Ride. Sally Ride was the first American woman in space.

Laura writes:

Thank you. I did know that and in an earlier version of this post I referred to “the first American woman in space.” But somehow in the editing process, I accidentally changed it.

SJF writes:

Regarding women and flying, I just noticed that Google’s search page features an Amelia Earhart logo in observation of the 115th anniversary of her birth. No such logo was featured on July 20, 2012 for the anniversary of the moon landing. This is another reason why we homeschool our children. We teach them comprehensive history (the good, the bad and the ugly), but we teach them to discern which historical achievements are truly significant. The moon landing – yes; Amelia Earhart – not so much.

Laura writes:

The achievements of female pilots and astronauts must be frequently celebrated — even a woman pilot who died in a plane crash as Earhart did. Otherwise it will be even harder to find women who want any of it.

Jane S. writes:

Actually, I did want to be an astronaut when I was a kid. I would make parachutes for my dolls.

Laura writes:

I am sorry you were unable to realize your dream. : – )

L. Gibbs writes:

First of all get your facts straight. Sally Ride was married to Steven Hawley and he did go into space. Also, as far as your comment “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”, she did look up at the stars with thousands of children and encouraged their wonder. My own daughter was privileged to that experience. She passed on her love of space to limitless young people (and they will pass it on to their children/grandchildren), which is way more than just a few children or grandchildren of her own. Women’s lives do not have to be centered around a man for them to find fulfillment.

Laura writes:

First, Sally Ride’s marriage to Steve Hawley was unsuccessful.

Second, while Ride did indeed encourage a love of space in the young, she also never seriously resisted the wide use of her image for feminist purposes and she linked enthusiasm for science in women to egalitarian careerism. While women’s lives needn’t involve marriage and children, women who fall into this category should not participate in the de-glorification of these roles. It is uncertain whether Ride approved of the announcement that she was a lesbian, but if she did, that too would indicate insensitivity to an encouragement of a love of science in women.

Laura adds:

By the way, small point but she did not pass on her love of space to “limitless” children. Also, a true love of physics is something pursued for its own sake and to the degree that Ride attached this enthusiasm to the utilitarian purpose of career or power for women (and I certainly am not saying that she always emphasized this link), she was not an advocate of scientific enthusiasm at its best.

Jeanette V. writes:

Let’s get real. Star Trek probably did more to to encourage women to go into the sciences than Sally Ride did.

 Henry McCulloch writes:

I am sorry to hear that Sally Ride has died. May she rest in peace. Reading about her early death brings back memories of 1983.

When Sally Ride – after fanfare ridiculously incommensurate with the event – became the first American woman to ride into space, I was a budding fighter pilot. In addition to thinking all the hoopla about Ride’s ride was egregiously overdone, we flying men couldn’t help remembering that Valentina Tereshkova had gone up there 20 years before – and that Tereshkova had flown solo, while Ride rode as a non-flying member of a crew of five. None of that was to denigrate Ride as an astronaut, only to keep the episode in perspective.

I’m pretty sure that by the time Ride rode up to orbit, the Soviets had flown at least one other Russian woman after Tereshkova, without making a fuss over it. As the Soviets weren’t known for passing up propaganda opportunities, the Party must not have thought it was a big deal: the Soviets certainly made a huge fuss over Tereshkova in 1963 and after.

Anyway, in 1983 the military pilot’s punchline about Sally Ride was that she had the perfect name for what she was going to do: go along for the ride!

Jesse Powell writes:

Sally Ride had a sister named Karen “Bear” Ride. Karen Ride also became a lesbian. She is now a minister in the Presbyterian Church. Karen Ride’s lesbian partner is also a minister in the Presbyterian Church. As a Washington Post article describes it, Bear and Susan Craig’s “holy union” took place in their backyard. Susan Craig is also a Presbyterian minister. The article also mentions that “Bear was part of the early wave of women to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA).”

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