RIP Sally Ride (1951-2012)

July 24, 2012 • 8:07 am

The first American woman in space, having flown on two space shuttle missions, Dr. Sally Ride died of pancreatic cancer yesterday at age 61.  After a productive career at NASA—which continued after her formal retirement when she sat on two panels investigating the Challenger explosion—she became an academic at Stanford and then the University of California at San Diego.  She ultimately founded an organization, Sally Ride Science, to foster young children’s interest in science.

Although she flew not that long ago—1983 and 1984—she still faced the formidable problems of endemic sexism.  In her obituary today, The New York Times reports this:

By the time she began studying laser physics at Stanford, women had already broken through into the physics department, once a boys’ club. And when she applied to the space program, NASA had already made a commitment to admit women.

But there were still rough spots. 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.

Can you imagine a male astronaut being asked whether he planned to have children or whether his flight might affect his genitals? I hope in the last thirty years we’ve gone beyond that.


60 thoughts on “RIP Sally Ride (1951-2012)

  1. “Dr. Ride is survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy”

    Who, because of the continuing discrimination against same-sex couples in the United States is not eligible for any federal survivors benefits.

      1. Lawsuits challenging the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act are already working their way toward the Supreme Court, and the Obama administration has declined to mount a defense of DOMA in court.

        Obama has also made gay marriage a plank of his re-election platform.

  2. I hope in the last thirty years we’ve gone beyond that.

    I fear that hope is in vain, althought admittedly things have moved in for the better, there is stil plethora of prejudice against women who choose “unwomanly” careers. Not as much as few decades ago, but still too much for Homo sapiens.

    1. I recall an orthopaedic surgery interview in the mid 1990s in which I was asked my opinion about (inference: plan for) having children during residency training. First, I replied to assure them my fellow residents would not be forced to carry my work load on top of theirs, as I was divorced and did not believed in waiting until after residency and settling into a good job before having children. Then, I pointedly asked, “Isn’t this an illegal question?” The bulldog of a senior/chief resident, sitting next to the attenting, jumped up threateningly and bellowed, “There are no illegal questions!” Of course, he was wrong, and of course, I was not chosen for that program. I noticed that some 10% of interviews, that year, went to women, but only as a perfunctory effort. Hardly any women were accepted. This was nationwide, by the way. We women just kept bumping into each other at the interviews.

      1. For further data, go to the ABOS website and look at the list of board certified orthopaedic surgeons. You’ll notice how many are female by their names and when they were certified. The process is such that, even if a woman could make it through the gauntlet of interviews and residency obstacles, they could always be blackballed by a male colleague, when it comes to board certification, and have their career cut short before it gets off the ground, leaving them with massive student loans they can’t pay. Were it otherwise, many, many more current board certified orthopaedic surgeons would, indeed, be women. It’s a marvelously fun bit of work.

  3. I can’t imagine asking a male astronaut whether he plans to have children, because it wouldn’t be an interesting question; men don’t usually spend most of their childhood playing with dolls pretending to be fathers. (They do play astronauts, though.)

    The only reason why I wouldn’t ask a female astronaut such a question is because I am not supposed to. But I would still want to know…

    1. The only reason why I wouldn’t ask a female astronaut such a question is because I am not supposed to. But I would still want to know…

      Wow. That’s the reason you wouldn’t ask? Why haven’t you found out then?

    2. So based on stereotypical childhood play preferences, you would presumably consider it a legitimate and interesting question to ask the male astronauts if they had any plans to herd cattle, put out fires, or build freeways in the near future.

      1. +1
        Your comment made me laugh, actually more snort, in laughter.
        Yeah, was thinking along the same lines. Also maybe they could be asked whether they wanted to hang a skull and cross bones on the outside of the capsule. Pirate astronauts in space FTW.

    3. So George,
      by inference you are saying that women spend most of their childhood playing with dolls and pretending to be mothers? That’s just another stereotype. I hated dolls and much preferred building sets. As did my daughter and now my granddaughters want something much more interesting than a doll to play with.

    4. George, why is it more interesting to ask if a woman astronaut is planning to have children than to ask if a male one is going to have children? Do you think it would be something that should be asked of, say, women police officers? How about women accountants? Or is is something that we should be asking all women until they hit menopause? Why is it relevant at all?

  4. “Would spaceflight affect her reproductive organs?”
    “Did she plan to have children?”
    “How would she deal with menstruation in space?”

    I fail to see how the three questions above are sexist. Their subject matters are of legitimate scientific interest. If I were a scientist researching the effect of spaceflight on human bodies, and/or its ramification on future space exploration, I would ask those questions for sure; And, with her being the first American woman in space, who else is more qualified to (attempt to) answer them.

    Were those questions intrusive? Probably.
    Sexist? Not necessarily. It depends on the motive of the person asking them.

    “Can you imagine a male astronaut being asked whether he planned to have children or whether his flight might affect his genitals?”

    Why not, especially if he has just been involved in the flight to a new frontier?

    1. Ah Jeez…what is sexist is NOT those question per se, but rather is that media reporters and interviewers asked HER those questions but did not ask similar such of male astronauts (I do not recall any such questions being reported as asked of even the first male astronauts; do you?).

          1. By “this country”, I presumed you mean the US&A? No, I am not aware of the full extent. My knowledge of the history of sexism in your country is very limited and superficial.

      1. At one of those press briefings I recall her suggesting to one reporter that he try asking that question of Commander Robert Crippen. The reporter decided against it.

        I also recall, after the shuttle landing, the crew standing outside when some NASA suit, probably well-meaning but non-thinking, came up and gave her a large bouquet of roses. Ride quickly handed the flowers off to an underling in the background. No fuss, but it clearly made the point that she wasn’t about to stand there with her crew holding a bunch of flowers. Sally Ride had the right stuff.

      2. I think I have misinterpreted Prof. Coyne’s closing remarks. I thought he meant to say that the mere act of asking a woman such questions constitutes sexism – I find this totally absurd, for reasons I stated above.

        However, after reading some responses and thinking about it further, I realized now that he meant to say that, had it been a male astronaut, the reporters wouldn’t have thought of asking such questions.

        Now, this makes more sense. *slaps head*

        Nevertheless, I find it lamentable that the reporters didn’t ask the first male astronaut those questions. What a loss of opportunity to educate the public about science.

        1. Really? What loss to science education if astronauts (of either gender) are not asked if they cry on the job? Why is it relevant in any way to ask if they plan to have children?

        2. I think that citizens and reporters then and now should be satisfied with NASA press releases or technical reports, or in-office/on-site interviews with engineers, scientists and technologists, regarding the specific techniques employed by Jane and John Doe Astronaut to satisfactorily relieve themselves in spacecraft, as opposed to putting those question directly to astronauts in a live television press conference, merely for the sake of “putting a human face” (or “cheek” or flank or loin) on the story.

          Of course, I grant that those willfully uncurious humans who cannot be bothered to lift a finger to obtain this information from any source other than the television will miss out.

      1. Agreed. There are at least two pretty egregious comments here so far. Hopefully it doesn’t end up going full FTB-style flamewars.

    2. “I fail to see how the three questions above are sexist. Their subject matters are of legitimate scientific interest.”

      You can certainly imagine a context in which those questions, asked of a woman, would not be sexist, but you have to realize that that would just be an imaginary scenario. In the real world, in the actual context that obtained, those questions where absolutely sexist.

      Sexism is so embedded in our culture, in most human cultures, that it often goes unnoticed, even by woman that are being detrimentally impacted by it. One sign that we have made some progress towards fixing this problem is that more people than ever before are aware when sexism occurs and point it out. A sign that we still have a long way to go is how contentious this topic is even among self proclaimed rationalists.

      1. And we yet can be totally assured of being informed, by the fatuous elements of the media, of the “fashion statements” of women in politics and elsewhere, whereas there is absolutely no such similar interest in men’s sartorial predilections.

        1. Not necessarily so…

          “And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear.”

          I’m often prompted to ask where Stephen Fry and Ian Hislop (another UK TV personality) get their ties.


          1. If a female politician or corporate CEO is interviewed for publication in the print media, one can generally be assured of being informed of her attire with some specificity, as if that were possibly relevant to her policy positions.

            I’m not saying there is no scrutiny whatsoever of men’s attire. I say that there is no comparable scrutiny.

            1. Well, that’s what you did say! “there is absolutely no such similar interest in men’s sartorial predilections” [my emphasis]

              But I agree that there’s a difference in degree.


              1. “But I agree that there’s a difference in degree. /@”

                Just congenially curious – just how a great a difference in degree do you yourself perceive?

        2. Which reminds me, it’s been a while since we had any frequent cowboy boot posts. Have you exhausted your collection?


    3. It might not be sexist for a !*scientist*! to ask those questions, but for a !*journalist*! the level of suspicion is justifiably much higher.

      1. Most scientists would have the courtesy to ask such questions in private. Whereas journalists make their living by violating norms of courtesy and privacy.

    4. ‘Were those questions intrusive? Probably.
      Sexist? Not necessarily.’

      To me the key point is that the questions are intrusive and that such intrusive questions wouldn’t have been asked to a man. That’s what makes them sexist, the fact that men wouldn’t be expected to answer such intrusive questions.

      “Can you imagine a male astronaut being asked whether he planned to have children or whether his flight might affect his genitals?”

      Why not, especially if he has just been involved in the flight to a new frontier?’

      But he wouldn’t be asked, and that’s the point. Whether it’s an interesting question or not is irrelevant, he simply wouldn’t be asked. But Sally was expected to deal with such questions simply because she was a woman. That’s what’s offensive about it, to me at least.

      I doubt very much that that would be acceptable behaviour from journalists today. I’m glad things are progressing. Slower than I would like, but progressing nonetheless.

  5. Subscribing, in anticipation of the discussion of reporters’ sense of entitlement to ask any bloody question that comes to their minds.

  6. Pancreatic cancer—did she smoke? I may be wrong but pancreatic cancer must be one of the worst ones to get, in terms of survival rate.

  7. Bra or makeup?! Cry on the job?!

    Ugh…journalists…*eye roll*

    Also, I am male, and I would’ve appreciated (nay, required) privacy while answering nature’s call. I have, just like many other males, a problem with “performance anxiety” in that department. How ridiculous it seems to me to think “Oh great, women on the shuttle with us? Now we’ll have to shit in private. God damn it!”

  8. It’s worth noting that Sally is not only the first US woman in space, but the first US lesbian in space. She was outed in her obituary, which noted her female partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy.

  9. She could have been a concert pianist or guitarist with those hands. I could be mistaken, but in the photo they look quite large, with long and dexterous fingers.

    Sally Ride’s triumpth in space is one of my happier memories from the eighties.

  10. There is some generally unknown background to sex discrimination in space. See here about the Mercury 13 program. Were it not for sex discrimination by John Glenn and others, Jerrie Cobb would likely have been the first American woman in space.

    I read an article by Jerrie Cobb some years ago. She went to South America as a Jungle Air kind of pilot. She lived in an Indian village and became good friends with the locals. When she heard of the landing on the moon, she was very excited and went to tell her Indian friends. They were not particularly interested, for, as they told her, the village Shaman made regular visits to the moon.

    Someone, not me, could write a science fiction short story featuring a trail of barefoot foot prints on the moon.

  11. The question of whether there are advantages, or special challenges faced by women engaging in space travel is an interesting one. It may be, for example, that women handle the high G forces of a launch, easier than men, due to their lower
    average body mass. I think Walter Cronkite could have asked these kinds of questions and we would all have come away better informed. Sadly,a measurable percentage of the American public don’t know any better than to ask questions like – “If monkeys evolve, why are there still monkeys”.

    Undying respect for Dr. Ride~

    1. Sullivan is often an ass and a self-centered putz, but I believe he was aiming more at the NYT for erasing Ride’s lesbianism in their obit.

    2. If she was not a Catholic would that further diminish her in his eyes?

      Perhaps we should all give him a quitclaim deed to our lives so as not to offend his delicate sensibilities.

  12. What makes it sexist isn’t its intrusiveness. It’s that the questioning concerns only her anatomy, and her differentness from her male colleagues. So while the men (presumably) got asked questions about the mission, their training, the technology, the equipment (and maybe their families), the woman gets asked about her lady-ness.

  13. This reminds me a little of the time when Kitty Dukakis (wife of 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis)was answering audience questions on some TV talk show (pre-election). She clearly wanted to discuss politics, foreign policy and other serious questions of the day (I think she would actually have made a better presidential candidate than her husband and would have voted for her myself) but the only sort of questions she was asked (by males and females alike) dealt with her potential “wifely” role at the White House- “What kind of china patterns will you have? What kind of decorating will you do?” Rather sad.

  14. It seems that the awareness of past sexism & of the growing disdain that people in general have for it, has merely allowed some in the media to figuratively take off their gloves. “Look how even-handed we are! We can make scurrilous suggestions about the first lady just as readily as we can about the president!”

  15. I like the reported fact that many of her supporters at the launch wore T shirts bearing the message “Ride, Sally Ride”.

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