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Gender, Technology, and America in the 1950s

Cat/Catherine Bloxsom

Date March 1, 2009

Professors Laura Blankenship and Anne Dalke

Gender and Technology

Paper #2


            On Monday’s panel, I represented Sally K. Ride, the first American woman astronaut. She has said an interview that gender was never an issue at NASA. She had a very supportive peer group and never felt ostracized because of her gender. Of course, she noticed in her upper level math and science classes, that there were a greater number of men. This fact however, did not discourage her from earning a Ph.D. in Physics. Looking into Sally’s biography, one can explain why she did not waiver in her passion for math and science. She grew up with supportive parents, who encouraged her education, even when she took up non-traditional feminine subjects. According to Sally, her parents tried their best to make learning fun. Thus, I can see how Sally Ride was a unique case at this time, having no familial connects in the math or science fields, but still maintaining her passion.


When Sally Ride applied for the astronaut program, she stood out, not only as a woman, but also, a female with an athletic background. Perhaps, the athletic background (she was a nationally ranked tennis player) made her seem more masculine in NASA’s eyes. They might have hypothesized that she could with stand the program’s tests just, as well as men.  Thus, my question is: why had NASA never taken a woman before Sally Ride in 1978?  Well, a woman named Ruth Nichols, a pilot, had gone through the astronaut tests, which included weightlessness, the isolation chamber, and the centrifuge in 1959. At fifty-eight years old, she passed all of the tests just, as well as the male astronauts, but was still not allowed to become one of them. In the late 1950s, “NASA was not interested. The space agency believed women were physically incapable of handling the demands of space,” (Ackmann 38).  Obviously, Ruth Nichols proved them wrong, and she tried to persuade the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base that women would be better astronauts than men, because of their natural abilities.


Rosalind Gill and Keith Grint would have called Ruth Nichols an eco-feminist, for she believed that certain natural, feminine attributes would help women in space. For example, women “would not take rash actions, would respond well to directions from the ground, and would be able to patiently withstand discomfort, isolation, and inactivity,” (Ackmann 45-46).  In the book The Mercury 13, Martha Ackmann quotes Nichols saying, “Most women are passive, submissive, patient by birthright;” thus, acknowledging her belief that women are born with feminine qualities (46).  In comparison to Sally Ride, who believes that gender is a social construction, Nichols re-enforces the 50s mentality that men and women are born with different natural abilities.   


The difference between generations can be used to explain each woman’s view on gender, but there still lies the question: Why did it take NASA so long to accept a woman? Now, that I know that there were women readily available, and that by the time Sally Ride came along, the Russians already had two women astronauts, the explanations have become clear. I feel that the only reason could be a gender-biased one, where men still believed that technology was too complicated for women to handle. What else could explain why were we holding women back? When Nichols tried to get a program for women astronauts off the ground, Wright-Patterson “declared that ‘under no circumstances’ would women be allowed to be astronauts…spending so much time studying women also would divert them from their primary work on men,” (Ackmann 45). In other words, women’s bodies were too mysterious and it was not economically sound to begin studying women. Also, the Air Force claimed that it would be too expensive to adjust pressurized suits, designed for men to women’s bodies.  An ironic aspect about the technology of these suits is that “David Clark, who achieved prominence for his manufacture of pressure suits, began his career as a lingerie maker,” and when he began, he used “women’s brassieres as a model,” (Ackmann 48).  No matter how many men supported Ruth in trying to start up a program, an older generation of men made the decisions, so that in the end it didn’t matter. They are described as conservative; thus, un-open to change.  The men in charge it seems believed in the prescribed gender roles of the 50s.


            During the late 1950s, women were becoming more independent in their careers, but were still not seen as equal to men. This however, was changing, since General Donald Flickinger and his colleague Randy Lovelace believed that NASA should test women’s physical capacity. Both believed that women had the potential to be astronauts. The men in charge of the Air Force and NASA at the time prevented America from moving forward, because of their own gender stereotypes. In their eyes technology was masculine. This was evident for women pilots, since aviation journals believed that when women menstruated their brain changed, so that they could not think clearly (Ackmann 38). Thus, air and space technology was a male realm, since women might become confused or distracted in the air.  The technology was not made for women, which was expressed in my previous mention of the pressurized suits. The suits themselves, engendered the individual, and since there were only “male body” suits, there could only be male astronauts.  Personally, I think the suit technology argument is ridiculous, since everyone’s body is different. It seems that suits would have needed to be altered to fit individual men, so why not make one to fit a woman? Also, when I look at the current space suits, they do not look like they are fitted to a woman’s body. I believe that NASA and Wright-Patterson feared “discovering that women were stronger and more physically capable than assumed,” (Ackmann 47).  This discovery would “challenge the military’s assertion of male strength, bravery, and superiority,” and men’s masculine identity at the time (Ackmann 47).  These disputes with gender and its relationship to technology, show a shifting in ideas. Gill and Grint’s “liberal feminists” were being to emerge, as proof became public that women could do the same things as men.


            The idea that gender was a social construct would come with the second wave of Feminism in the 1960s. Perhaps, if Ruth Nichols had not committed suicide in 1960, she would have been the first American woman in space. Her suicide however, only contributed to the idea that women were volatile creatures, and would not do well in space.  NASA closed itself off to women, as astronauts, until the late 1970s, when more women were entering a variety of male dominated fields. There had been and continued to be women pilots, but space was a male member’s only club.


Although attitudes towards women have changed, NASA still remains a male dominated industry. Sally Ride argues that it is because girls loose an interest in math and science in middle school. Thus, she has begun programs encouraging girls in the math and science fields. In our schools the idea that certain subjects, careers, and activities are either male or female still lingers. It all goes back to how we define and view gender.



Ackmann, Martha. The Mercury 13. New York: Random House, 2003.

One Response
  1. March 10, 2009

    I like the comparison of Ride and Nichols and the connection you make between them and particular types of feminism. I feel like I don’t know enough about Ride’s experience to know how different it was from Nichols’. You say that she didn’t feel like her gender made that much of a difference, but I’m left wanting to know more about why. Was it the rise of liberal feminism? Was it that Ride just wasn’t socialized to believe that women weren’t capable of space flight? Nichols seemed to believe that women were capable, but was blocked. Why wasn’t Ride? And I guess, further, why don’t we have more women in space?

    I was also interested in the use of technological constraints to block women from space flight–the suits and perhaps the instrumentation and of course, the lack of understanding of women’s bodies. I’m guessing none of this came up in Ride’s experience?

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