Women Versus the Gatekeepers

When I was a kid, the first thing I ever wanted to be was an astrounaut. Well, technically, the first thing I wanted to be was a cat, but when, at the age of 2, I ordered "French fries and Little Friskies" at a restaurant, my parents freaked out, and my feline dreams fell aside. When I stopped walking around on all fours, I started looking up and discovered the whole world was looking up at this point in history. I have a freak memory that goes all the way back to my first birthday, so remembering the first moon landing, isn't too much of a stretch. 

As soon as I was big enough to swing by myself without being pushed by an adult, I would spend all the daylight hours when the moon was visible, swinging and staring at it. I wanted to go. Not like every kid thinks it's cool to be a fireman kind of want to go. I seriously, desperately wanted to go. I didn't tell anyone. I'd learned what happened when I let on about the cat thing, so the astronaut thing was a total secret.

photo courtesy of NASA

By the second moon landing, I was paying close attention. If I was going to go there someday, I figured I needed to know how one sets about becoming an astronaut. I knew better than to ask. I asked my father what those big boxes on the astronauts' backs were, and he told me they were filled with medicine. I later supposed that explaining the concept of bottled oxygen to a child was up there with explaining why the sky was blue, and he didn't want to bother. At the time I wondered how going to the moon could make someone so sick he'd need to carry half a drug store on his back.

I had noticed something else about the moon walkers. They were all men. The news reports sang their glory as military men and fighter pilots. So this was how one got to be an astronaut. But I didn't want to be a fighter pilot. And I sure didn't want to be a man. The men in my family seemed to know a lot, but they never seemed to be as clever as the women, and they had to wear ties. I thought ties were stupid.

Mae Jemison - 
physician, professor, 
I went back to swinging and staring at the moon, wishing it were possible for me to go but not really seeing how that would play out if I was dead set against being a fighter pilot. By the age of seven I was thoroughly discouraged. Perhaps I should have told someone my dream, but I can't imagine anyone would have said what I needed to hear, that one day NASA would send up scientists not just fighter pilots, that one day women would be astronauts too.

I grew up in a world that was falling apart at the same time there seemed some hope of it coming together. Walter Kronkite's nightly body count in Viet Nam, war protestors, civil rights activists, and bra burners were all over my television, but I was afraid to ask about any of it. By the time I  became aware of the world around me, middle class, white people were mostly sick of talking about what was wrong and seemed to want it to work itself out without any more effort on their part. 
Katherine Johnson, the mathematician who 

did the calculations for the first actual 

moon landing in 1969

What I did hear talk of was Women's Lib. I heard it as a derogatory term, said in the exaggerated way people say things when they are suggesting other people are exaggerating the importance of something. I heard people droning on about the pros and cons of allowing women to do jobs they hadn't done before. 


Who's in charge of that?

My mother worked, and I knew her monther had worked until she had kids, and my great-grandmother worked most of her life. I knew the men my mother had to deal with were often jerks to her, but they also didn't seem nearly as intelligent as she was, so I couldn't understand why she cared.

I had one concrete clue that it was ok to be me and still be what I want.

Voice of the Mummy, my favorite board game in the 1970's
The board game that ultimately made me become a metalsmith had another profound effect. In Voice of the Mummy, one moved one's cardboard Egyptologist around the board, collecting gems, and listening to the whim's of the Pharaoh's voice from the plastic sarcophagus encased record player on top. Two of the cardboard Egyptologists were men, and two of them were women. Women could be Egyptologists!

I had a plan, albeit one that took a big detour.

What gatekeeper had let that gender freedom slip through the game design?!?

photo courtesy of NASA
The problem with gatekeepers is that they filter out vital information that people need to know. Traditional gatekeepers may have gone the way of record label executives; CNN may be forced to follow and substantiate the Twitterverse (it would seem that Fox News hasn't figured this out yet), but our media channels, be they TV or social, still filter for us. They do so partly because no one could possibly take in the vast amount of new information released at any given moment and partly, perhaps mostly, because they still deal in what sells. Unfortunately, what sells is still a rather narrow view in the world.

The reality was that women Egyptologists are real, and had been a reality since the early days of Egyptology being regarded as a legitimate field of study. The letters between Caroline Ransome Williams and Howard Carter bear out the regard in which Williams was held. Her book, Gold and Silver Jewelry and Related Objects, though sadly long out of print and never republished, is the foundation for much research into the techniques of Bronze Age metalsmithing and referenced today by experts like Jack Ogden.

Vera Rubin, American astronomer who established the
presence of dark matter in galaxies, measures spectra
in the 1970s. Photo courtesy of Vera Rubin via amnh.org
Decades after my dream of being an astronaut, the women who made it possible for anyone to go to the moon are coming to light. I first learned of Vera Rubin from watching Stephen Hawking's Universe in the late 1990's. Rubin established the existence of dark matter. I thought, however, that she was alone as a pioneering female astronomer. In the recent series of Cosmos hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson I Iearned of Annie Jump Cannon, who developed the stellar classification system and Celia Payne, who was able to determine the composition and temperatures of stars based on Cannon's work. Through Maria Popova's Brain Pickings I have found Maria Mitchell.

Saturn's rings, photo courtesy of NASA
For 100 years, school kids have learned about Marie Currie as some kind of freak exception to a man's world. A little digging in most any field, however, and you will find the women whose contributions have been glossed over or written out completely. Hildeguard Von Bingen, Camille Claudel, Elizibeth Vigee-LeBrun, Rosalind Franklin, and many many others. A recent edition of Metalsmith magazine has a whole article on women jewelers of the Art Nouveau period. We buy into this idea that throughout history men did all the worthwhile work, and women stayed home and raised families. (The stupidity of any statement containing the term worthwhile versus the term stayed at home is a whole other essay.) 

Actually, we've been here all along doing exceedingly worthwhile things.

May all the children starring at the sky from their swings know this.

1 comment:

BornToBeWorn said...

My first job out of college was working for IBM as a subcontractor to NASA on the Space Shuttle program (1983). I was in the department that worked on the operating system code that flies the Shuttle. Prior to my job, only 6 shuttle missions had flown so I was able to be a part of many missions for the 10 years that I worked on the Shuttle. Working on "Man-Rated" software (upon which a person's life depends) was a great experience that has served me well in my software career. While I didn't have the dream of working on the space program as a child, I could not believe my good fortune to have been given the opportunity to do so as a fresh computer science graduate. IBM also paid for me to receive my master's degree in CS from the University of Houston. Luckily for me, many of my teachers in that program were adjunct professors who also worked on the space program during the day.