This 12 September 2017 is the 25th anniversary of Dr Mae Jemison’s flight on space shuttle Endeavour as the first Black American woman to travel in space. Dr Jemison began her career as a physician who served in the Peace Corps, before making history as an astronaut. To celebrate Dr Jamison’s achievements, let’s take a look at her contributions and the trajectory of other iconic women in spaceflight.
While there have been many iconic women pioneers in space travel, their ascent has been a triumph over gender inequity. Up until the 1980s, the media largely focused on women astronauts’ looks, making disparaging jokes about their femininity getting in the way of their missions. Thus they ignored the mental and physical stamina required to go into this field, not to mention the high level of education demanded of astronauts, who are qualified scientists. For example, the first woman to travel in space in 1963, Dr Valentina Tereshkova, did so after acquiring a Phd in engineering.
Only 50 years a go, astronaut John Glenn dismissed the scientific qualifications of women astronauts using biological determinism. He told a USA Subcommittee: “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable.”
The iconic photograph of the 1927 Solvay conference featured 29 stellar physicists and chemists, including Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. Only one, Marie Curie, was a woman. When Professor Teresa Giraldez came across a historical photograph of nine leading women scientists, she was intrigued. Dated February 14th, 1980, this photograph marks a reception hosted by the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter (represented here by his Assistant Sarah Weddington). Here, Teresa tells us about the remarkable journey of these women who received high recognition at the White House.
The scientists portrayed in this picture were all born in the first quarter of the 20th century and many of them developed their career throughout extremely hard times: during or just after the Second World War (WWII). Interestingly (or should I say ‘sadly’?), tough times for society usually turn out into professional or social opportunities for women; this seems to be the case for some of the women in the picture. In the US, during WWII, the proportion of working women increased by about 15%. The reason for this increase was that many jobs, previously occupied solely by men, were now deserted–they had left to the war front. This situation was soon extended to the field of Science and Technology. For example, the United States Civil Commission, in its search for qualified personnel, “rebranded” many disciplines such as engineering (until then, mainly dominated by men). Thus, the Commission made it clear in its 1941 report that ”Feminine aptitudes may be well adapted to engineering design, testing, and inspection, research, preparation of plans and maps, and computation” (Calling women for federal war work, United States Civil Service Commission, 1941). However, most historians agree that this apparently auspicious achievement must be taken with a grain of salt: these women scientists were mostly hired in positions “according to their femininity”, often in lower level jobs and always as subordinates in the research teams performing research projects during the War. In most cases, it was expected that, after the War was over, they would stop working to go back to their ‘home duties’ (1, 2). While many women were hired during those years, only a few were recognized.