Space Exploration And The Invisible Women

Yesterday being a snow day in New York City–for school-going children and college professors alike–I spent it with my daughter at home. Diversion was necessary, and so I turned to an old friend–the growing stock of quite excellent documentaries on Netflix–for aid. My recent conversations with my daughter have touched on the topic of space exploration–itself prompted by a discussion of the Man on the Moon, which had led me to point out that actual men had been to the moon, by rocket, and indeed, had walked on it. A space exploration documentary it would be. We settled on the BBC’s ‘Rocket Men’ and off we went; I wanted to show my daughter the Apollo 11 mission in particular, as I have fond memories of watching a documentary on its flight with my parents when I was a five-year old myself.

As the documentary began, I experienced a familiar sinking feeling: my daughter and I were going to be watching something ‘notable,’ ‘historical,’ a human achievement of some repute, and yet again, we would find few women featured prominently. Indeed, as the title itself suggests, the documentary is about men: the astronauts, the rocket scientists, the mission control specialists. The only women visible are those watching rockets blast off or worrying about the fates of their family members in them. This used to happen in our watching of music videos too as I introduced my daughter to ‘guitar heroes’ as a spur to her guitar lessons. After a couple of weeks of watching the likes of Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page et al, my daughter asked me, “Don’t girls play the guitar?” Well, of course they do, and so off we went, to check out Joan Jett, Nancy Wilson, Lita Ford, Chrissie Hynde, the Deal sisters, and many others.

It had been an easy trap to fall into. In the case of music, I had a blind spot myself. In the case of space exploration the problem lay elsewhere: there were no women pilots qualified for the astronaut program as the initial selection of the astronaut corps came from the armed forces. Both instances though, were united by their embedding in a culture in which women were women were less visible, less recognized, less likely to be promoted to the relevant pantheon. After all, as in literature and art and philosophy, women have been present in numbers that speak to their ability to surmount the social barriers placed in their paths, and yet still rendered invisible because of the failure to see them and their contributions to their chosen field of artistic endeavor.

As I watched a video of the first seven American astronauts being introduced at a press conference, I felt I had to say something to my daughter, to explain to her why no women were to be seen in this cavalcade of handsome crew cut men wearing aviator sunglasses. So I launched into a brief digression, explaining the selection process and why women couldn’t have been selected. My daughter listened with some bemusement and asked if things were still that way now. I said, no, but there’s work to be done. And then we returned to watching the Gemini and Apollo missions. Afterwards, I walked over to my computer and pulled up the Wikipedia entries for Valentina Tereshkova and Sally Ride and Kalpana Chawla and showed them to my daughter, promising her that we would watch documentaries on them too. She seemed suitably enthused.

My Daughter And The Hillary Clinton Candidacy

In the first draft of my review–forthcoming in Jacobin–of Doug Henwood‘s My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets The Presidency, I had included some lines that did not survive the first editorial take on my submission (I await, with some trepidation, the next editorial lowering of the boom.) Here is how it read:

Hilary is no…Eleanor Roosevelt…she is no feminist hero and should not be….I will not ask my three-year old daughter to look up to Hillary; she will find better feminist heroes elsewhere. Like her mother, who fights for the rights of unionized workers, something which Hillary, in her attacks on teachers unions in Arkansas, has shown herself incapable of in the past.

In my assessment, on this blog (here and here), of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, I had often wondered whether the symbolic value of her presidency would be great enough to outweigh her political faults. In these ruminations, I could not but help think of my daughter (and others like her.) A mere toddler, sure, but by the time a Clinton presidency’s first term will terminate, she will be seven years old. (If Clinton serves two terms, my daughter will almost be a pre-teen by the time of the second term’s conclusion.) What would it mean to her to see a woman as president? Just for her, and for her sense of what is possible in this world, would it not be better that a woman become president–in preference to yet another old white man, even if he is a kindly Jewish socialist from Vermont?

I don’t think so. My daughter encounters many women who can serve as positive role models. I introduce her, on a regular basis, to my woman friends in my various social groups: professors, journalists, doctors, writers, lawyers, teachers, students, labor organizers, mathematicians, and so on. She sees women–at my gym–perform amazing feats of strength. (She sees her own mother perform some of these.) She is not lacking for inspiration, for the right kinds of images; she hears, as often as I can manage, stories of women’s power and achievement. She will still encounter sexism and patriarchy; that much, I cannot protect her from. But I try, on an ongoing basis, to prepare her for those inevitable encounters.  I try to expand her sense of what this world holds for her, and of the kind of room she can make for herself.

Women politicians and  leaders are an important component of her world-image but they, like any of the other women I introduce my daughter to, must show, by their commitment to ethical and political ideals that I think my daughter should live by, that they can serve as worthy exemplars for my daughter.  This same constraint applies to any of the other women my daughter meets. I doubt a woman who busts unions for a living, or a journalist who serves corporate interests, would evoke approving commentary from me. “Keep your distance from this kind of achievement” is what I think I would say.

I desperately want my daughter want to grow up in a kinder and more just world. I want her to grow up in a world without war, racism, and soul-and-life-crushing economic inequality. I do not think a candidate who has supported mass incarceration, helped throw helpless families off welfare, voted for an illegal war, and payed obeisance to–and aspires to membership in–the most powerful economic class in this nation, will make that kind of world.

A political post is but one station among many that a woman can occupy to serve as a role model for my daughter. And even that one must be occupied by a woman animated by the right kinds of principles. My daughter has many other heroes to look up to; she will be just fine without a Hillary Clinton presidency. And if Hillary Clinton does become president, I will make sure to point out to my daughter that were she to aspire to be president herself, she would hopefully seek out an alternate set of animating political and moral principles.