In 1983, Sally Ride [who passed away July 23 after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer] became the first American woman in space. I was, of course, too young to remember seeing anything about it on television as it happened, but my mom made sure she told me about it. And at the end of the story, she would say, “Just remember, you can be anything you want to be, when you go to college and you work hard.”
Now, maybe going to college doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is when your parents had you when they were way too young to have kids, your daddy was barely making minimum wage changing tires, you live in rural East Texas, you’re a girl, and, oh, yeah, your parents refuse to take any assistance from anyone outside the family. But if Sally Ride could do it, my parents were confident that their daughters could do it, too, as long as they went to college…and worked hard.
There was no “if” in regards to college. It was always “when” and my parents didn’t tolerate excuses. Sometime in our childhood, mine and my sister’s room acquired a picture of Sally Ride, and then another picture of the ill-fated Challenger crew with Christa McAuliffe and Judith Resnick. They were visible reminders that being female didn’t mean you were dumb, and it didn’t mean you had to settle.
So my sister and I did work hard, and between the scholarships we earned and our parents working very hard to pay what the scholarships didn’t cover, we finished college with no debt. I became an Air Force officer and served for five years. Along the way, I had the opportunity to work with some truly superb officers and enlisted and I am blessed to call many of them friends. My sister turned down music scholarships in favor of math and science and today passes on her passion for mathematics as a high school math teacher.
We were fortunate. We had wonderful, involved parents who pushed their daughters to spread their wings and look beyond the stereotypical female roles, and we had Sally Ride on our wall to remind us what we could do.
Now that I have a daughter, though, I wonder who her role model will be as she grows older. While I can tick off several old friends still serving who will be more than happy to mentor her, what about the little girls who don’t have military ties? When we have the constant glorification of Snooki, Kim Kardashian and the latest Teen Mom shoved at us by a fawning media, who will point the way to the stars for America’s daughters?
Let me be perfectly clear: this is not a crisis that social engineering can fix. America does not want nor need affirmative action ensuring a woman becomes a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or commands the next shuttle mission—if there ever is another American shuttle mission. Too often, the people the media forces up onto the pedestal have feet of clay. But we do need a woman who can make being smart something our daughters can aspire to again.
And I may just dig out that old photo of Sally Ride for my little girl. Thank you, Sally, for blazing the trail for so many.
By John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I have trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.