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Astronautrix, astronette, feminaut, space girl…

2013 June 17
  • This was originally posted on Sarah’s now defunct blog in 2010, re-posted here to mark 50 years since the first woman went into space.
NASA photo of African-American astronaut Mae Jemison in her orange flight-suit.

Dr Mae Jemison

What do you call a female astronaut? These are some of the ingenious words that journalists invented in the early 1960s to avoid having to say ‘astronaut’ when describing Jerrie Cobb, the first woman to pass NASA tests and qualify as an astronaut, although she never had a chance to go into space.

I’ve been thinking about astronauts recently for two reasons. Firstly, a friend of mine lent me this absorbing book about the ‘Mercury 13′ – women including Cobb who were trained as astronauts but never went into space because America wasn’t brave enough.

Secondly, I discovered a pile of my old school reports in my mum’s flat the other day and was astonished to read that my stated career ambition at age 11 was ‘astronaut’. I mean, I loved space and stars and rockets – are there any kids that don’t? And I do remember wanting to be an astronaut. But at 11? It makes me wonder how old I was when I gave up wanting to be a knight of the round table…

A dream for boys?

I’m not going to rant about how being an astronaut shouldn’t be a distant dream for a girl. Let’s face it, astronauting isn’t an easy line to get into – it’s a distant dream for most people. Apparently there have been 512 humans in space, of which 10% have been women (Wikipedia  has a list of space travellers.) Unimpressive, I agree, but when you bear in mind that we can scarcely get women into the House of Commons (around 20% of MPs are women) getting them into space seems like less of a priority.

What really interests me is that women into space doesn’t really go even as a dream. Of course, there’s been an astronaut Barbie, but the gender stereotypes that so confused journalists back then are still very much in evidence in the aisles of toy shops today, as this post on Sociological Images neatly shows. Being an astronaut is a childhood dream for boys only.

A dream for men?

In fact, even in adult culture it seems we’re not totally cool with the dream of female astronauts. Here’s a brief, interesting article  by Marie Lathers from Times Higher Ed about women astronauts in films, which takes in AlienContactApollo 13 and even I Dream of Jeannie (astronaut husband).

Lathers sees an identification of the feminine with mother earth and nature, setting them in opposition to space and even to science. Given this conflict she suggests that women in space are more frequently aligned with the alien (our old friend the Other) than with the human space adventurer. She sez:

Popular culture representations of women in space reveal a need to “ground” women by keeping them bound to Earth. Woman grounded is woman subjected to the weight of gravity; bodies in space defy gravity. Feminist theory needs to assess the possibilities that rethinking women in space affords. “Extraterrestrial” feminism may provide a way out of the essentialism that bottles us up.

It’s an interesting notion, and one that the arts student in me would like to pursue. However, I wanted to talk about some of the real female astronauts as well as the dream. I’ll just give a few examples from their stories – I couldn’t bear to pick just one of these incredible women.

‘A woman’s place is in the cockpit’

I mentioned poor Jerrie Cobb and the Mercury 13  who so narrowly missed being the first ‘feminauts’. Another fascinating woman is linked to the US Women in Space Program. Without beautician-turned-aviator Jackie Cochran – who held more speed, altitude and distance records than any other pilot in aviation history at the time of her death in 1980 – it may never have happened at all. Check out Right Stuff Wrong Sex  for the story of a serious political operator at work.

Russian Valentina Tereshkova made it to first woman in space, in 1963 (beating the US by an appalling TWENTY YEARS) and launched skywards from a suitably proletarian background – she was a textile factory worker and an amateur parachutist who left school at 8 and continued her education through correspondence courses. She spent three days in space, and went round the earth 48 times.

Physicist Dr Sally Ride was the first American woman in space, in 1983, and one of our own (feminists, that is). Ride reportedly:

… refused to be seen in television downlinks doing food preparation or toilet cleaning, even though these were shared crew responsibilities. She refused to accept a bouquet of flowers from NASA after completing her first space mission. She pasted a bumper sticker to the front of her desk: “A woman’s place is in the cockpit”.

Ride went on to found science education organisation Sally Ride Science, which pleasingly promises to be “all science, all the time” and encourages girls to learn about and enjoy science and maths.

In 1992 scientist, doctor and peace worker Dr Mae Jemison became the first woman of colour in space. After her retirement from NASA, Jemison has led work supporting research into the use of technology in developing countries and science education for teenagers. AND she wins pop culture points by being the first real life astronaut to appear on Star Trek. Which is especially neat as she said that Lieutenant Uhura (played by Nichelle Nichols) was one of her early heroes. Look at this awesome picture of them together.

Women to look up to

I think it’s particularly because I’m not from a tech or science background that female astronauts are like superheroes to me. That’s why I love this Flickr set of loosely inspired portraits Philip Bond has done. Obviously they’ve lovely things in themselves, but I like them because they look like collectible playing cards, or stickers. I want Tereshkova on a t-shirt. I want people to ask me who she is so I can tell them.

Pop-art style face portrait of Valentina Tereshkova, a young white Russian woman in an orange spacesuit with a cream coloured helmet. CCCP is on her helmet in red lettering. Image by Flickr user phillipjbond, shared under Creative Commons licence.

Valentina Tereshkova, by Phillip Bond, 2009 (philipjbond on Flickr)

You know when I said earlier that getting women into space wasn’t really a priority? Not compared to getting women into Parliament, for example. Well, in a way that’s not true. It’s all a priority. Because real life role models give you the permission to have the dream.

Every girl who dreams of being an astronaut won’t become one. But she may become an engineer, or a physicist, a mathematician, a pilot, an athlete. She might teach science to other girls. She may be a leader.

There are exceptional individuals who blaze a trail, like the women above. But I think I can safely speak for most of us when I say it’s nice to have someone to look up to.

Why was I so keen on being an astronaut? I think it was as much to do with Helen Sharman, who became the first British person in space when I was 8, as it was to do with my love of stars.

You’ve probably deduced that I didn’t become an astronaut. But I did become a feminist, and it’s women like these that inspire me.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. June 17, 2013

    “A woman’s place is in the cockpit” reminded me of Kitty Hawke.

    When the comic ‘Girl’ was launched in 1951, the front page was given over to “Kitty Hawke and her all-girl air crew”. (‘Girl’ was Britain’s second comic marketed specifically to girls, the first was ‘School Friend’.) It’s a shame that Kitty Hawke was soon relegated to a black and white inside page, and then dropped altogether. She might have formed a useful role model for girls aspiring toward space exploration, or at least toward escaping stereotypical gender roles. See here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girl_(UK_comics)

    It would be interesting to know the story behind Kitty Hawke’s downgrading and vanishment. It says on Wikipedia that: “The strip was not very popular – it was apparently felt to be too masculine…” but there is no citation to confirm this. Not everything stated on Wikipedia is true, nor is every justification given by publishers to be relied upon. It says in ‘The History of Girls’ Comics’ by Susan Brewer (p114): “the fiesty Kitty was eventually replaced, as the war was becoming old-hat amongst the modern misses of the 1950s.” This explanation, at least, is demonstrable nonsense. Kitty flew a civil (charter) aircraft in the 1950s, not a warplane, nor was it a wartime adventure. If Kitty was unpopular (which may or may not be true) perhaps it was badly written. The “too masculine” charge has at least an element of truth in that it was written and drawn by men. Perhaps it was too much of a boys’ comic, translated crudely into one for girls. But the under representation of female artists and writers in comics is another issue. So, sticking with the themes (rather than the authorship) of the comic…

    When ‘Girl’ returned to the air in 1958, it was with “Angela Air Hostess”. Sigh.

    I don’t suppose that we’ll ever know the full truth behind the dropping of this potentially valuable (in inspiring girls into the cockpit) comic strip, but it’s a great shame that Kitty Hawke didn’t properly fly into the imaginations of girls growing up in the 1950s.

    • June 17, 2013

      I see, after posting it, that my comment assumes that becoming a pilot is a step towards becoming an astronaut. In considering the fact that the USSR was twenty years ahead of the USA in putting a woman into space, it may be worthwhile to place Valentina Tereshkova in this context (for example):

      http://www.badreputation.org.uk/2011/05/27/unsung-heroes-the-night-witches/

      It took me ages to find that dimly-remembered old Bad Rep post. I hope it’s sufficiently relevant to be worth the effort.

  2. Alyson permalink
    June 17, 2013

    The Mercury 13 were awesome and it’s a real shame that history hasn’t given them more recognition. I hadn’t even heard of them until last year, and only because they turned up in Kelly Sue DeConnick’s ‘Captain Marvel’ – I was so happy to discover that they were real, but also kind of ashamed that I’d never heard of them before.

  3. Jon permalink
    January 29, 2018

    There is a lot of misrepresentation round the “Mercury 13”.

    This was never an official NASA selection program, it was a private project by William Lovelace II who ran the Lovelace clinic which assessed the physical and mental fitness of the Mercury astronauts. he had a long history in advancing women in aviation until his untimely death in 1965 in a plane crash.

    Secondly there were 13 candidates who passed the phase I medical test program hence the term “Mercury 13”. Three went on to complete phase II testing which was psychological. Only one (Cobb) completed the final phase III trial which included flying jets. The others were scheduled to continue their testing but were unable to do so because US Navy denied use of the testing facility for undisclosed reasons (the three who had completed phase II testing had done so at an air force facility.

    Because this was not an official program not of these people had the slightest chance of flying as astronauts. Furthermore none met the requirements of being serving military test pilots. This requirement was not waived until astronaut group 4. This group was accidently selected in 1965, after the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, making discrimination on the grounds of gender illegal.

    The first women astronauts were the six selected as part of astronaut group 8 (1978), all payload specialists. Of course now there are many highly competent women combat pilots in the US, some with test pilot experience, such as C. These would have no trouble meeting the original requirements. the first woman pilot astronaut Collins) was selected is part of group 13 in 1990. She flew four times, as both polit and commander of the shuttle.

    One of the ironies of the whole story is that some of the strongest opposition to women astronauts came from the leading aviator Jacqueline Cochran who, after initial support, turned against. She later changed her position again to support of women astronauts.

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