A Tribute To Sally Ride, The Quiet Wrecking Ball
Sally Ride, who suffered from pancreatic cancer and, as a result, died peacefully in her home at the age of 61, earned a spot on the Challenger mission of 1983 and became the first American woman to fly in space. She then used her influence to inspire generations of young girls to infiltrate the fields of math, science and technology, reminding America just how much these fields were missing by leaving girls out.
Even in today's society, when people often argue that fighting for women's rights is a waste of time, a huge disparity still exists between the male and female pursuit of almost every single high level career path. There are still more male doctors, more male politicians, more male lawyers and more male scientists. And women, on average, make 81% of what men make yearly, meaning women are still significantly under-represented in higher paying careers.
The disparity was even worse in the late 1970s, when Dr. Ride was finishing doctorate studies in laser physics at Stanford University. When she applied to the space program, NASA had already made a commitment to admit women. However, it was not until five years after her acceptance in 1978 that Ride actually flew in space, and even then she faced discriminatory and disbelieving attitudes, particularly from the national media.
Reporters bombarded her with questions focused on her sex: Did she think spaceflight would affect her ability to have children? Would she still wear a bra or makeup in space? Would it make menstruation difficult? Did she ever cry on the job? Johnny Carson even joked on “The Tonight Show” that take-off would be delayed because Dr. Ride needed time to find a purse to match her shoes.
Dr. Ride joined a small legacy of women in space that was equally tainted by discrimination. Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova earned the distinction of being the first woman in space in 1963. A second woman, however, did not make a mission until 1982, and a male cosmonaut reportedly welcomed her onto the Space Station by saying that the kitchen and an apron were all ready for her.
Dr. Ride admirably deflected similar barrages of narrow-mindedness and negativity, stating at a NASA news conference that “It's too bad this is such a big deal. It's too bad our society isn't further along.”
Equally admirable is that, following the successful completion of two missions in space and training for a third that was canceled after the Challenger explosion in 1986, Dr. Ride began a new mission: to help society make up for its failings.
As a member of the panel appointed by Ronald Reagan to investigate the explosion of the space shuttle, Dr. Ride gained a reputation for asking tough questions that helped ensure that the role the carelessness of NASA personnel played in the accident was something for which the panel accounted. Despite her usual reticence, she openly lent support to those whose testimony indicated as much—even as they were shunned by many of her peers. She would serve a similar function in 2003, following the in-flight disintegration of the shuttle Columbia.
In 1989, Dr. Ride joined the physics department at University of California, San Diego, and became director of the California Space Institute. While there, her passion for science education grew to included younger students. She wrote six science books for children, and in 2001 she founded a science education start-up called Sally Ride Science. The company provides science programming, publications, and teacher training designed to bolster the interests of elementary and middle school students in science, math and technology.
A key part of their corporate mission is also “to make a difference in girls' lives, and in society's perceptions of their roles in technical fields.” As part of this mission, the company has put on nearly 100 science festivals nationwide. The festivals include girls in the fifth through eighth grade, their parents and educators, and feature workshops, hands-on activities, food, music, speakers and socializing.
I got the chance to attend one of these festivals, hosted by the University of Michigan, the day after my tenth birthday. My friends and I watched robotics demonstrations and made gelatin, and Dr. Ride signed one of her books for me. Dr. Ride also gave the keynote address, and it was the first time I sat through a speech of that ilk without getting bored once. My mind was blown. I had already decided I wanted to be a surgeon; for the first time, I understood this goal as something more than precocious ambition, a chance to continue the legacy of women like Sally Ride.
Nine years later, I am pursuing a degree in the arts and humanities, but I still consider Dr. Ride a role model. Her refusal to allow discrimination to direct her away from her dreams, and her commitment to making sure every American could contribute his or her full capacity to advancing our society, scientifically and otherwise, are traits I hope to emulate.
Our nation has missed out on countless opportunities for progress by restricting the potential of not just women, but also immigrants, ethnic minorities, LGBT people and the poor. I believe that by challenging one of these defects, she challenged them all, and she certainly inspired me to do the same from a very young age.
Consequently, I am surprised at the number of criticisms Dr. Ride has received for coming out posthumously, and not when she was alive to influence the LGBT cause. Ultimately, Dr. Ride did support the LGBT cause, by working to undermine discriminatory ideology in America. We do have to pick our battles, and Dr. Ride made hers the advancement of all girls, both gay and straight.
Dr. Ride did not live her life in the closet—she leaves behind a beloved life partner of twenty-seven years—she simply chose not to make a big deal about her sexual orientation. It goes back to her words at the NASA news conference before she first went into space. If it's too bad people cared so much about her being a woman, it's too bad they would have cared so much if she publicly announced she was a lesbian.
Sally Ride was a remarkable woman, for many reasons. She distinguished herself as a scientist, astronaut and educator. She surpassed the limits placed on her sex, and on her sexual orientation. She saw disparity and injustice and envisioned a society in which they were absent. She overcame and she inspired, and I thank her for that.
Reach Contributor Francesca Bessey here.