These days, there are plenty of programs designed with the sole aim to encourage girls’ interests in STEM fields and to graft them into careers that serve those interests. But not long ago, gigs in math, science, and engineering weren’t considered woman-friendly enterprises. In school, if a girl’s strong suits were math and science, she could be perceived as an anomaly. Groundbreaking astronauts Sally Ride and Mae Jemison grew up in eras where this was the case. I grew up in an era where this was the case.
I was only three when Ride became the first American woman to travel into space on the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983, and I was a few months shy of 13 when Jemison became the first black woman to do the same on the Space Shuttle Endeavour. Without either of them, I wouldn’t have considered astronautics as a possibility. Granted, I sucked at math and science, so it wasn’t on my Top Five Future Awesome Jobs list, but I know for a fact that, following their space travel, it skyrocketed to the top of other young girls’ ambitions.
This is why it’s baffling that, the day after Sally Ride succumbed to pancreatic cancer at age 61, Laura Helmuth of Slate would argue that Ride’s milestone came “too late” for feminism:
Judging by Google query completions, a lot of people think Sally Ride was the first woman in space. But that was cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who was also the first civilian in space. Do you remember how many years the Soviets beat us by in this particular race? Twenty. Tereshkova piloted the Vostok 6 into space in 1963. The first woman to walk in space was Svetlana Savitskaya, in 1982. By the time Ride got there, we already had a lot of female “firsts,” which made some of the attention lavished on her — what an amazing feat for a woman! — feel a little condescending to, say, a 14-year-old girl in Indiana.
It’s precisely because America took such a long time to send its first woman (and its first black woman) into space that Ride’s and Jemison’s careers should be held in such high esteem. What 14-year-old girl who’s been raised to be afraid to answer a question correctly in math class or to ask a question in fifth-period biology can’t identify with condescension? Wouldn’t these women’s examples be paramount for modeling ways to transcend a culture that seeks to pigeonhole their academic interests and career opportunities? Doesn’t it make sense to think about all the ways in which Ride’s career-long strides toward creating the STEM initiatives for girls and Jemison’s work to create space for people of color in STEM fields rather than to dwell on when they occurred?
It isn’t as important who was first to the finish line as it is who reached back and offered a baton to the rest of us. The late Sally Ride certainly did so. And Jemison, as a STEM advocate and lecturer, continues to do the same.