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.

Young Lady, You Too Can Strap On An Ammo Belt

It’s official: American women can now  kill strange people in strange lands, put themselves in harm’s way and die for their country.  The Pentagon’s announcement that women in the US military will now be allowed to serve in combat zones finally brings to an end a discriminatory policy that had looked increasingly ludicrous as women continued to serve in them anyway. It says a great deal about the world we live in that an announcement such as this is cause for celebration. Of course, my preliminary facetiousness notwithstanding, this is not celebration of the kind that says ‘Hooray! I’m gonna go get me some scalps now’ but rather, one of a more sober kind, one that acknowledges the lowering of a long-standing barrier that had served to showcase unquestioned prejudice, reinforced sexism, and more practically, denied employment opportunities and advancement to women. Consider, for instance, that it was always unlikely that in an armed service, one devoted to armed combat, that non-combatants would ever rise to the highest posts, be granted significant executive power, or have their workplace related issues taken seriously. This systematic discrimination continued while one sad truth was sometimes visible to those that cared to peek around the edges of official military policy:

The biggest safety concern for women in the military is actually not so much enemy fire as sexual attacks from fellow members of their own service. Because the crime is so underreported, it’s impossible to say how many women suffer sexual assault while they’re in uniform, but 3,192 cases were recorded in 2011.

These sexual assaults took place in an atmosphere where, thanks to the proscription of women from combat duty, an internal caste system had been created, one which was guaranteed to generate resentment too: while women were deemed unfit for combat, they were also made the brunt of the aspersion that they couldn’t ‘hack it’ and as such ‘had it easy’ while the men went off to die. So a sexist policy engendered a misogynist response. The creation of this two-tier system was always going to be more of a threat to women than enemy fire.

But women did not ask to be kept out of combat. Au contraire, over the years, an increasing number of women actively sought out responsibilities that would move them ever closer to combat: they flew fighter jets for instance. Conversely, modern warfare, at least in the way that the US conducts it, had made it ever more possible for ‘combat zone duty’ to be defined in such a way that the imagined risks were not those of older combat zones.

Having said all of this, I must return to the tone with which I began this post for try as I might, one cannot be too celebratory about an announcement that the largest, most aggressive military power in the world has widened its recruiting pool. The US military faces recruitment difficulties, and keeping women out of combat zones was always going to be an increasingly untenable policy in light of that. When the disenfranchised have always gone off and fought wars, then why not cast the net wider to rope in a few more of them?