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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ride, Sally Ride!

For some reason, the news hit me especially hard. Sally Ride is dead at age 61 after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. 

It was 1983 when Ms. Ride took her first ride around the orbit of the earth.

Just to give you some context, that same year, Vanessa Williams became the first African-American woman to be named 'Miss America' while segregationist Governor George Wallace was elected to a record-breaking 4th term as Governor of Alabama.  Elizabeth Dole was named as the first woman Secretary of Transportation and a New Bedford, MA woman charged that she was gang-raped by six men in "Big Dan's Tavern".

First Lady Nancy Reagan was beginning her "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign and Margaret Thatcher began her second historic term as Prime Minister of England, engaged in fierce battle with the labor movement.  That year, Martina Navratilova won 86 of 87 tennis matches and singer Karen Carpenter died of complications associated with anorexia.

Therein lies the complicated image of women which began to emerge after the "Second Wave of Feminism" was sparked by Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" in 1963.

In 1983 - twenty years later and two years into the growing world-wide pandemic known as AIDS - women were still struggling to throw off the shackles of the dominant male paradigm while some women continued to live into it, even as they broke barriers of the traditional male definition of beauty and tried to create a place for the voice of women and mothers in the midst of what seemed like a national addiction to drugs.

In 1983, I was just entering seminary, the fourth woman in my diocese to be in the ordination process, endorsed by a bishop who had been a vociferous adversary of the ordination of women, and one of the first 100 to be ordained. 

Those were, as Paul Simon wrote in Graceland, "the days of miracle and wonder....lasers in the jungle....the boy in the bubble and the baby with a baboon heart".
These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That's dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don't cry baby, don't cry
Don't cry
We hadn't found the cause of or the cure for AIDS - which was still being referred to as GRID (Gay Related Infectious Disease) -  and neighborhoods of poor people were being delivered truckloads of #17 cans of peanut butter and great slabs of "Uncle Ronnie's Cheese", and ketchup in their children's school lunch counted as a "vegetable", all of which served as evidence of their "fair share" of the "trickle down economics" of the time, but a 32 year old woman was in orbit around the earth. 

Forty-nine years later, women continue to make great strides, but the struggles with male-defined beauty and anorexia and the 'proper' role of women continue. We continue to try and create places for the voices of women to speak their wisdom to a culture and society gone mad with violence.

Meanwhile, in the background, Sally Ride was quietly creating a feminist movement of her own.

In 2001, Ride founded 'Sally Ride Science', which develops science programs and publications from upper elementary and middle school students.

It includes the Sally Ride Science Academy, a 'train the trainer' program which helps teachers raise students' interest in science; Science Festivals where girls, parents and teachers attend workshops, meet scientists and have fun at a street fair; and Science Camps where middle-aged school girls participate in hands-on science, build things and make new friends who share their interest in science.

"My mission these days is to improve science education and particularly to encourage more girls and young women to go on in careers in science and math and technology or to at least explore the opportunities in those fields," Ride told members of the Allegheny County Women's Leadership Council in 2007.

"The philosophy we have is that we don't have to convert kids, even girls, to science. Let's just give them opportunities to explore those interests and show them that there are lots of other girls, normal kids, who share those interests and that there are lots of women who go on to careers that they love in science and engineering."

I love it that she used the term, "normal kids".

By every account,  Sally Kristen Ride, PhD, was an extraordinary woman.
"Sally lived her life to the fullest, with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, commitment, and love," says a statement on the Sally Ride Science website, which announced her death.

"Her integrity was absolute; her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless."
President Barack Obama said, "Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model."

Mitt Romney called her "one of America's great pioneers" and a "profile in courage".

Indeed!  However, thanks to DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), Tam O'Shaughnessy, Sally Ride's spouse for the last 27 years, will be without federal benefits that even the most undeserving American receives after the death of their spouse.

O'Shaughnessy was reportedly by Ride's side throughout the astronaut's 17-month battle against cancer, and, before Ride became ill, they co-authored four books, including "Mission: Planet Earth: Our World and Its Climate -- and How Humans Are Changing Them" and "Voyager: An Adventure to the Edge of the Solar System."

If either the President or the presumptive Republican nominee for POTUS mean what they say about Sally Ride being a "national hero"and "one of America's great pioneers", the least they could do to honor her memory and her incredible contributions to this nation would be to work to repeal DOMA.

I think that's entirely possible when Mr. Obama wins re-election. Mr. Romney? I'm betting we'll get to see his tax returns before he ever advocates a repeal of DOMA.

I've been wandering around the house and my neighborhood today, trying to make sense of the loss of Sally Ride, the first woman and, at age 32, the youngest American to enter space aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger.

I keep hearing a refrain from Wilson Pickett's song, "Mustang Sally": "Ride, Sally, ride!"

You know, I believe Sally is riding around the heavens right now, seeing in full what she only once saw in part - which was more than many of us will ever see in this lifetime.

Sally Ride inspired a nation to push beyond our boundaries and seek excellence and exceptionalism and led us through the "days of miracle and wonder".  In so doing, she became a role model for millions of women around the world, to move beyond cultural and societal definitions of what it means to be "a normal woman" - in every way.

So don't cry baby, don't cry, don't cry, don't cry. She helped us see what we looked like to a distant constellation that's dying in the corner of the sky.

Ride on, Sally Ride! Continue to take us with you, inspiring us with your life and witness.

As Buzz Lightyear would say, "To infinity and beyond!


IT said...

Thanks for the links about Sally's partner. It does show the perversion that is DOMA, that in addition to the loss of her beloved she is officially "persona non grata" legally. I hope that they invested in the lawyers etc to try to protect themselves as much as possible.

In 1983, I was already embarked on my passion for science, in my junior year in College. I remember being aware of Sally Ride, but at the time it just seemed "normal" and "about time". I graduated a year later with a dual degree and a feeling that the world was my oyster. Everything seemed possible, and being a woman no longer seemed limiting.

Ah, the hopes of youth. Nearly 30 years later, I am more than ever aware of those limits. Too often I am the only woman in a meeting where everyone else is pale, stale, and male. We've gotten women into the science pipeline. But we don't seem able to keep them there.

There is still work to do. Now in Sally's honor and in her memory, we do it!

Selecia Jones said...

Please don't saddle Georgia with George Wallace. We have enough already. He belongs to Alabama.

As for Sally Ride, I am so happy that a lesbian was the first woman in space. We have been going places for a long, long time. I pray that your wish for DOMA is die a swift death is granted. This is such a stark reality and the death of Ms. Ride who was partnered for 27 years shows so plainly the need for the repeal.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

IT - I want to reverse DOMA and pass the ERA. Sally, I thin, would be pleased.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Selecia - YIKES!! My apologies. I will fix that. I'm hearing that some are upset that she and her partner were "outed" in the obituary. Well, that seems to be what Sally wanted - just a quiet, simple statement of fact. Good for her!

JCF said...

Lovely tribute, Elizabeth. Comfort to {{{Tam}}}, and may Sally rest (FLY!) in peace.

I grew up w/ Apollo in the 60s, hoping *I* would be "America's First Woman in Space". By 1983, I'd long since let go of that dream...but I wasn't any less thrilled to see Sally Ride fulfill it!

"Forty-nine years later, women continue to make great strides": I think you meant 29 years later? From 1983? [Please, don't make me older than I already am!]

Unknown said...

Thank you, Elizabeth for this wonderful piece!
I, do hope that the President will take the advice of the Episcopal Church and repeal DOMA. It's time for the government to step up to the plate and recognzie that not everyone falls in love with someone of the opposite sex and should have the ability to marry the person they love without limitation.

erin said...

I am 54--25 in 1983--majored in science in college and have a norweigan grandmother. I am a lesbian although the label kink of irks me. I am not out out but live still in the closet whatever thatvmeans. I enjoyed your post and have always loved that paul simon sing. I have been trying to explain to for years the norweigan angle so i find it humorous as part of the reason for sally being in the closet. I grew up in minnesota influenced by that privavcy stuff. Anyway good for her on the science education for kids and perpetuating her parents encourage but let them explore theme.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - Actually, I meant from Betty Freidan's book in 1963.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Susan - from your lips to God's ear.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Erin - I think coming out is an intensely personal thing. I want everyone to be "out and open", but I understand that, for many reasons, that's not always possible. God Bless you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for reminding me of all the other things happening in 1983 when Sally made her first trip into space- it was an amazing time for an amazing woman to make an amazing contribution to science and women's place in the world of science and space exploration. I remember being thrilled by her journey and accomplishment (I was a science teacher then). I enjoyed your piece very much.
Janet L. Bohren

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Janet - You are entirely welcome. Context is important. When we recall the events of 1983, the accomplishments of Sally Ride begin to really sink in. It will be interesting to read what my grandchildren write about 2012.