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Women in SPACE!

I represented Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space in the individual panel, and was surprised to hear the contrasts between her and her American counterpart, Sally Ride. The particularly interesting contrasts of the two women’s lives are their reasons for becoming part of the astronaut/cosmonaut field, and the reactions, or press, they received upon their return to Earth.

As Aline has noted, Sally Ride worked hard to achieve her position as a female astronaut, and that motivation is what saw her finally reach outer-space. But Valentina was not motivated by a grand desire to become better than, or equal to men. Instead, she felt that space exploration was a mission she could undertake for the betterment of her country. Also, while Sally’s mission was considered a brand new step for women, and a moment of empowerment, Valentina’s mission was propaganda, and solely about impressions.

The reason I say that Valentina’s flight was all about impressions is because one of the main reasons she was chosen above the other five women considered was that her father had a “proletariat” background, and had been killed during World War II. Not only that, but Valentina also had.

On top of that, the reason for the Russian desire to put a woman in space related to the Space Race currently on-going with the US. Surely, if the US put a woman in space before Russia, then they had won this race, or so was the thinking. The implications of these politics meant that women could fly, but in order to do so, it was absolutely necessary that they represent the Communist values. One other woman in the group, Ponomaryova, was eminently more qualified for the flight than Valentina, who had difficulty with the technological aspects of the mission, but was physically able (a fact I find ironic given the topic of our class). However,

Ponomaryova had the best test results, but did not give ‘proper’ replies in the interviews with the puritanical Communist selection board. When asked ‘What do you want from life?’ she replied, ‘I want to take everything it can offer’. Tereshkova, on the other hand, intoned ‘I want to support irrevocably the Komsomol and Communist Party’. Ponomaryova also maintained that a woman could smoke and still be a decent person, and had made ‘scandalous’ trips unescorted into the town of Fedosiya while there for parachute training. (

For women living in a western society, Ponomaryova’s answer seems empowering and rational, but for Russian women in the 1960s, such an answer was unacceptable. Which, I suppose leads to the question: what would have happened if Valentina had been born in the United States?

Had Valentina been born to American presidents, she would have not gone into outer-space. Not only was America second to send women into space, but the whole endeavor was spurred by actions taken by the Russians, and vice versa. Also, Valentina had no motivations towards space until she was selected, and in American society, motivation is the key to any opportunity. Which means that by being American, she would not have had as many opportunities as she would have in Russia (which seems odd).

This is not to say that Valentina came out better for her experience in space. While she gained fame, and had an experience of several lifetimes, she also was slandered for becoming sick in space, and for disagreeing with a group of men regarding the safety of her return angle of approach. (Which would have killed her had she not corrected it.) Not to mention that when Valentina returned from space, she was pushed into a “political” marriage with a fellow cosmonaut, Nikolayev.

Valentina does not speak of her experience in space as anything other than positive, but from an American perspective a lot of what she went through seems “unfair.” Sally Ride may have had to work harder for her opportunity to fly, but in the end she was able to empower herself, and women, through her use of the technology (of NASA, etc.). Valentina, was a pawn of technology, used because she fit a country’s ideal image of women. So, is this dichotomy a difference in time periods (about a decade, or so)? Or does it pertain to the difference in countries? It would be interesting to see which countries send women into space, or which would consider doing so, if they had a space program.


Notable Biographies. “Valentina Tereshkova.” <>

Wade, Mark. “Tereshkova.” <>

One Response
  1. March 20, 2009

    This is a very interesting contradiction you bring up between the way that Ride and Tereshkova entered into the space program. Ride, who entered the US program much later, followed in a line of women who tried to become astronauts but who were rejected for the very reasons that Tereshkova was chosen by the Russians. I’d be interested in teasing out more the relationship between politics and technology in both countries and how gender figured into that. My sense is that the US has a pretty macho image of itself that it wanted to portray to the world while the Russians were more interested in internal propaganda. It would make an interesting longer paper to explore some of these issues.

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