Sally Ride: Hero for the Girls of the ’80s

Like many, I was saddened to hear about the death of Sally Ride yesterday. The first U.S. woman to travel to space was a childhood hero of mine, though not in a way you might expect. I wrote the following to try and understand how she inspired me.

Remember Weekly Reader? I counted down the days every week until we got ours, which I would devour before the teachers finished picking students to do the reading out loud. Weekly Reader, and the accompanying book order forms, were my favorite thing about elementary school, maybe the only thing I liked about school at that time. They were also where I first remember reading about Sally Ride. I don’t remember the details, I just remember that I was very young, maybe first grade, and we were reading about the first U.S. woman to travel to space. That was a big deal, even for us little girls, even when space exploration wasn’t part of our plan.

I loved the idea of heading into space, but was never all that interested in math or science, not because of the whole girls-and-math thing, but because I was too busy staging recess productions of Annie or trying to make the great Wonder Woman movie in my head come to life. Space, to me, was about big dreams and I had a lot of those. When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was make movies and plays, but, as far as I knew, women weren’t really doing that either.

It doesn’t matter how young you are, or whether or not you grew up with parents who, like mine, never gave you the “girls don’t do that” line. As little girls, we know we’re growing up in a world ruled by the boys. We were always smart enough to notice that the newsmakers were men, that the names in movie and TV credits were mostly male. And, back in the early ’80s, we knew that Sally Ride heading into space was something to celebrate. If a grown up version of us could travel distances most earthbound folks can’t comprehend, then there was nothing stopping the girls of the 1980s. Right?

Maybe. We got older and realized that being a lady with ambition isn’t enough. We saw doors slammed in our faces. We’ve been objectified as we try to do our jobs. We still deal with those who are more concerned with how we look than what we’ve achieved. Sexism never went away, but our generation of women keeps pushing forward because, if Sally Ride could travel beyond the ends of the earth, so can we, even if our journey is metaphoric. We were lucky to have someone like Ride in the world to inspire us when we were so young.

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