As you probably know by now, yesterday we lost Dr. Sally Ride, a woman so many of us have looked up to for decades as a symbol of what a woman can accomplish in a man’s world. (That’s right, I said it: This is a Man’s World, and that’s why we still need feminism.) In the past 24 hours I’ve read so many heartbroken tributes from women for whom Sally was more than a role model; more than a hero. She was a turning point for girls whose passion for science had been discouraged and dampened by stereotypes.
Washington congressional candidate Darcy Burner said yesterday, “She made me want to be an astronaut.” And from my friend E: “A woman astronaut! That was transformative. This was when I believed that women had a chance. We could do what the guys did — let me rephrase. I knew we could do it, but that we would be allowed to do it.”
Sally made being the nation’s first woman in space look easy, though it was anything but. Everyone from NASA officials to the press wondered whether a woman could hack it. From her LA times obituary:
“There are,” Ride acknowledged, “people within NASA who need convincing.” She would have been much happier, I suspect, in the present day, when the presence of women in NASA is no big deal and every girl can dream of a career in science or technology or aerospace without being scoffed at and told, “Girls can’t do that.” But she had a big hand in making the extraordinary — a female astronaut — routine.
From her NYT obituary:
Speaking to reporters before the first shuttle flight, Dr. Ride — chosen in part because she was known for keeping her cool under stress — politely endured a barrage of questions focused on her sex: Would spaceflight affect her reproductive organs? Did she plan to have children? Would she wear a bra or makeup in space? Did she cry on the job? How would she deal with menstruation in space?
The CBS News reporter Diane Sawyer asked her to demonstrate a newly installed privacy curtain around the shuttle’s toilet. On “The Tonight Show,” Johnny Carson joked that the shuttle flight would be delayed because Dr. Ride had to find a purse to match her shoes.
At a NASA news conference, Dr. Ride said: “It’s too bad this is such a big deal. It’s too bad our society isn’t further along.”
Sally Ride made it her life’s mission to crush stereotypes relating not just to women, but to science. As Dr. Ride put it, “Girls tend to have a stereotype of engineers being 65-year-old guys who wear lab coats and pocket protectors and look like Einstein.” And she didn’t stop at being a great scientist and role model. After she left NASA, she founded Sally Ride Science, a company dedicated to creating programs to inspire and feed kids’ passion for science.
And now, in death, Dr. Sally Ride has come out as a lesbian who lived happily with her partner for 27 years, adding support for a cause which must have been dear to her in life, but which had to come second to her desire to show kids–especially girls–that science was cool. Her image as the USA’s first woman astronaut was an important tool in that regard. She didn’t lend her name to many things. Her sister Bear Ride says she was a private person, but also: “That wasn’t her battle of choice—the battle of choice was science education for kids.” It seems to me that she sacrificed certain freedoms (e.g., the freedom to publicly love whomever she loved) partly in order to protect her “brand”–not for profit, but to avoid letting prejudice become an obstacle to her efforts to help galvanize new generations of scientists. Then yesterday she was all: BAM! Take that, everybody. Yep, she was gay, and you still love her.
I think I might love her even more.