Sally Ride: Women’s Firsts in Space and Politics

Posted on Mon, February 27, 2017

Dr. Sally Kristen Ride’s role as the first American woman in space demonstrates the power of path-breaking women who are the first to do something. When the National Air and Space Museum sent two curators and an archivist to assess and collect Dr. Ride’s artifacts and archives in 2013, it became clear that Dr. Ride privately saw many connections between her history-making spaceflight and the state of American women in politics and public life. Several political buttons from 1984 that she kept in her personal desk in her home study tell that story.

When Ride flew into space aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia during STS-7 in 1983, she became a public sensation. At first, the outsized reaction seemed baffling to her. As Lynn Sherr quoted her in Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space, Ride said at the time, “I think maybe it’s too bad that our society isn’t further along and this is such a big deal. But if the American public thinks it’s a big deal, then it’s probably good that it’s getting the coverage it’s getting.” Over time, however, Ride came to understand, “how much it would mean to so many women, to see a woman become an astronaut. I think until we see a woman like ourselves accomplish something, it’s hard to form the pictures in our head that allow us to imagine doing such a thing ourselves.”

As a NASA astronaut, Ride remained publically nonpartisan and nonpolitical. But she came to national prominence in a historical moment when women’s issues and accomplished women were central to the political discussions of the day. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a proposed Constitutional amendment requiring equality between the sexes under the law, had been passed by the House and Senate in 1972, but it needed to be ratified by ¾ of the states (38 states). The ERA ultimately failed when the extended deadlines of 1979 and 1982 passed without successful ratification, but the issue remained fresh in the early 1980s. When the Museum looked at Ride’s effects, seeking to collect the whole arc of her life as told through artifacts, the curators found an “ERA is for Everyone” button in Ride’s desk, along with three buttons for another First Woman.

Ride met New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro during a visit to Ferraro’s congressional office just before she was nominated in 1984 by the Democrats as the first woman to run for Vice President on a major party ticket. In her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Ferraro specifically named Sally Ride’s spaceflight as a sign that “change is in the air.” Hearing Ferraro mention her by name brought home to Ride the significance of her own role as a First Woman: “I was as moved by that as many women had been by my flight into space. For the first time, I understood why it was such an emotional experience for so many people, to see me accomplish what I had, as a woman.” Ride had three different Mondale/Ferraro buttons in her desk drawer.

Red, white, and blue button.

Sally Ride's ERA button.

Red, white, and blue button with an image of Ferraro center.

Sally Ride's Geraldine Ferraro button.

The archives and artifacts collected by the Museum tell the stories of Ride’s space career, as well as her youth as a competitive tennis player and aspiring physicist. After her two spaceflights, Ride went on to be much more than just the first American woman in space. She served with distinction on the NASA commissions investigating the Challenger disaster in 1986 and the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003. In 1986, she led a task force defining a new strategy for NASA. The influential report issued in 1987, formally called NASA Leadership and America’s Future in Space: A Report to the Administrator, is known informally as “the Ride report.” And, together with her partner in business and in life, Dr. Tam O’Shaughnessy, she founded Sally Ride Science to encourage young people, especially girls, to study science.

Although she was never “out” during her lifetime, after her death her partner Dr. O'Shaughnessy wrote an excellent young adult book about the full scope of Ride's life, including their decades together. In retrospect, Ride is considered by many to have been the first LBGTQ astronaut.

Historically, the struggle for women’s equality has been a long, slow process, characterized by both hard-won rights and hard-fought defeats. Women won the right to vote via the 19th Amendment in 1920 after decades of effort. But the ERA failed. The Mondale/Ferraro ticket lost. In spaceflight, there is not yet parity. Although over 500 people have flown in space, only 60 of them have been women. The fact that women can still be the first to do something speaks to barriers not yet broken, glass ceilings not yet shattered.