In 1983, when astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, a lot of the media attention around her accomplishment focussed on one question: What make-up would she use aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger? Ride recalled this in an interview soon after she had completed her first space trip: “They didn’t care about how well prepared I was to operate the [Space Shuttle] arm or deploy communications satellites”.
Echoes of this question could be heard once again in the media focus on astronaut Wang Yaping, who is set to become the first Chinese woman to walk in space as she stays on board China’s Tiangong space station for six months. An official from the China National Space Administration reportedly said on the state television network, “Female astronauts may be in better condition after putting on make-up.” And there’s been a lot of chatter about the fact that Wang has a five-year-old child — her two male colleagues were not asked about their families — and about how she would manage her menstrual cycle in space.
Over 50 years have passed since Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space and yet, so much of the curiosity, when it comes to female astronauts, remains centred on their bodies and the traditional duties they’re expected to fulfil, even as, professionally, they match their male colleagues, step-for-step. The number of women in the space industry remains abysmally low: According to the UN, only 11 per cent of astronauts so far have been women. The skewed sex ratio perpetuates a vicious cycle, making it harder for women to enter this field, as when the first-ever all-women spacewalk was cancelled in 2019 because there were not enough space suits to fit them, or the fact that there is significantly less data on the effects of microgravity on women’s bodies. The weightlessness experienced in space may be a “great equaliser”, as Ride once said, but on terra firma, gender equality remains a distant dream.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on October 26, 2021 under the title ‘Weighed down’.