The XX Factor

The Right Stuff

DoubleX is starting a new partnership with The Washington Post Magazine . Each week our contributors will argue over a certain question, and we invite you to join in. This week: According to a recent issue of Wired magazine , women performed just as well as men in late 1950s astronaut training tests. What if a woman had been the first American in space?

Hanna Rosin : Instead of the airline stewardess as path-breakers, we might have had the astronaut. How cool would that have been? The women’s movement would have been entirely different. Space would have been our frontier. “The Feminine Mystique” would have meant something much more badass. Wonder Woman would have been moot. Or, on the other hand, maybe space exploration would have become “women’s work,” figure skating with no gravity. And my husband still would not be changing the crib sheets.

Jessica Grose : A female astronaut would not have made a difference in the chronology of the women’s movement. Look at Amelia Earhart: She was a pilot in the 1920s and ‘30s and a media darling. And yet, according to the most recent statistics I could find, fewer than 5 percent of cockpit crew members in the United States are women. Even if there had been an Annie Astronaut in the late ‘50s, it wouldn’t have altered the grand scheme of women’s lib.

KJ Dell’Antonia : What’s with the xenophobia? Valentina Tereshkova went into space for Russia in June of 1963. She was part of a corps of women cosmonauts-all of whom had to be under 30 years old, weigh less than 154 pounds, and be less than 5’7”. (Why do those requirements sound so much more reasonable for orbiting earth than for serving in-flight coffee?) NASA was shocked that the Russians had sent a “girl” and did consider-but eventually dismiss-the idea that lighter astronauts would require less fuel, less oxygen, and less food. Apparently, “from each according to his (or her) ability” had its good points.

June Thomas : A few years ago, I worked at a company where men dominated the most valued technical positions. There were all kinds of programs to draw more women into these roles, but when it came time to reward workers for shipping a new product, the jackets emblazoned with the product logo usually came in a choice of large and extra large. Times have changed since the 1950s when astronaut candidates had to be test pilots-a job that women were shut out of-but earlier this decade, NASA abandoned a program to develop a space suit for smaller women, deeming it too costly. Sizes speak louder than words.

Alison Buckholtz : I am fortunate to know many female military aviators, and confident that a phrase like “That’s one small step for women, one giant leap for mankind” would never occur to any of them-or their hypothetical foremothers in flight. These women work so hard to overcome career barriers that they rarely draw attention to gender differences. Instead, I like to think about what the first woman in space would have brought with her. In my mind’s eye, I see her holding her grandmother’s small, sepia-toned wedding photo, creased along the edges, portraying an unsmiling young woman barely aware of what is about to happen to her. But the alchemy of space works its magic on the photo, and grandma returns to earth smiling, finally assured that her sacrifice was worth it.