Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Ride, Sally Ride

Nearly a year ago, Sally Ride, America's first female astronaut, died of cancer at the age of 61.

It's a shame she couldn't have lived another year because today is the 30th anniversary of her historic trip into outer space, and it would be fascinating to get her perspective on how things in general have changed for women in the last three decades.

Things have changed for both genders in terms of space travel; actually, things have changed quite a bit for the space program in general. The United States put the space shuttle in mothballs a couple of years ago. Once in awhile, there is talk of reviving the programs of traveling to the moon or just into space — or beginning work on the much more ambitious goal of traveling to Mars — but little has come of such talk.

And, in spite of some protests to the contrary, it is plausible to argue — in some quarters — that little has changed for women since that time.

I guess it depends on what one considers progress and how long one thinks it is reasonable to wait for it.

A woman had already been appointed to the Supreme Court by the time of Ride's historic journey into space. No women had been nominated prior to that; three more have been appointed and currently sit on the Court today.

Since this day 30 years ago, both major political parties have put women on their national tickets — the Democrats were first a year after Ride's flight, it took the Republicans two dozen years to do the same.

There are arguments to be made about how women are portrayed in the popular media, whether they are given more or less respect as a demographic group. And there are certainly arguments to be made about inequities in pay — although, in the economy we've had for the last 5½ years, it may be more relevant to compare unemployment and underemployment rates for the sexes.

But I wonder if it is appropriate even to discuss those things on this day. Ride's achievement was her own. It was never suggested, never even implied, that her accomplishment would change the lives of American women.

It may have opened some doors in the space program for women, but it certainly wasn't why Geraldine Ferraro or Sarah Palin were chosen to run for vice president — and Sandra Day O'Connor had been on the Supreme Court for nearly two years when Ride went into space so it makes no sense to say that Sally Ride influenced Supreme Court nominations.

It was part of the steady drip–drip–drip of history that signals an inevitability of some kind.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was like that. It didn't cause immediate change, but, little by little, attitudes were changed and barriers were torn down.

That is often how history works. Change rarely comes as quickly as some people want, but eventually it comes.

Sally Ride made her contribution to the evolution of women's role in our culture 30 years ago.

But she was a very private woman. Few people knew of her long–term same–sex relationship or of her eventually fatal illness until after she died.

I don't feel she was motivated by a desire to be a role model at anything other than being a good and dedicated astronaut — which she was.

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