Women and the ‘social order’

When the original NASA Mercury program to train astronauts was set up, a group of women who wanted to be part of the program were subjected to the same physical tests as the men. The result?

The women matched — and sometimes surpassed — the results of the men, but not everyone was impressed.

John Glenn told Congress that women pilots were against our “social order.” Vice President Lyndon Johnson wrote, “Let’s stop this now” on a memo to NASA.

astronaut wivesAnd so no women were admitted to that program, just seven men. Instead the role of women in the space program was to be adoring, fashionable model wives, as this cover from Life magazine shows.

NPR had a story about this yesterday that said that the wives had to maintain the image that the astronauts had perfect traditional families even though it was some of the wives who had to work to put their husbands through school. As one of them Renee Carpenter said, “One of the early prerequisites was ‘no solid marriage, no space flight’. We were entertaining machines, eyes glued on our husbands’ careers.”

Now of course, women are all over the space program, taking leadership roles, and proving themselves to be perfectly capable. But they could have achieved that much earlier if not for people trying to maintain the ‘natural’ order of things, which often means nothing more than the way things are right now and what people are comfortable with.


  1. machintelligence says

    1962 – Though Jerrie Cobb and 12 other women (the Mercury 13) passed astronaut admission tests, NASA decides not to select any women. Congressional hearings include testimony by Cobb and others, including Senator Philip Hart, husband of one of the Mercury 13.

    1963 – June – Valentina Tereshkova, cosmonaut from the USSR, becomes the first woman in space

    Score another space first for the Russians (although they were not exactly a hotbed for women’s rights.)

  2. CaitieCat says

    Actually, they were a bit of a mixed bag, machintelligence. While they clearly had a glass ceiling – no women on the Politburo, ever, for instance, nor even in the levels from which Politburo members were drawn – women in the USSR were MUCH more free to work in science or academia than in the West, served in numerous combat roles in WWII (fighter and bomber pilots, snipers, sometimes infantry and anti-tank gun units), were given much more space in the arts (writing and poetry particularly, both important cultural arts for Russians), and had much more official equality.

    There was also a serious problem with birth control access (which led to astonishing abortion rates, only in the last couple of decades diminishing in Russia), domestic violence was more or less completely unchecked – and widespread alcoholism didn’t help with that, non-work gender roles remained conservative much longer than the West, the glass ceiling was pretty much made of Star Wars’ transparisteel, and the Russian men (still) tend to think that the idea of making sexual harrassment against the rules is a hilarious science tiction tale.

    So yeah – mixed bag. I should say that I’m drawing on my experiences as an interpreter for various visiting Soviets in the glasnost’ period; some museologists from Borodino, some parasitologists from Siberia (worst. interpreting. job. ever.), a business delegation to the mayor of my city, that kind of thing. I often spent a good deal of time talking and socializing with the visitors, in my capacity as Queen Xenophila of the Alien-Lovers. So anecdata, yes, but drawn from multiple experiences with a fair number of Soviet women. 🙂

  3. Chiroptera says

    And, in my opinion, this is an example of why, even when women can’t pass the “physical tests” required for some occupation, we are completely justified in demanding to know why those requirements are necessary in the first place. If being able to pass a “physical strength/endurance” test is not a guarantee that women would be accepted into an occupation, then it is reasonable to wonder whether the tests are merely a device put into place to exclude women to begin with.

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