My daughter began studying astronomy this month, and right now our focus is on astronauts. So when I heard that Sally Ride had passed away yesterday, we already had a large stack of books about astronauts. I tucked my daughter in to bed and began looking through our books, thinking I would put together an impromptu lesson about the first American woman in space. Imagine my surprise when only two of the books about astronauts that I’d pulled from the library last week even mentioned Sally Ride.
One that did mention Sally Ride was Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone. I almost didn’t pick this one up because my daughter is only seven, and I’d rather not give her the sense that there is anything standing in the way of her achieving her dreams than her own drive and interest. I worry that bringing home books that highlight the fact that “girls can do things, too!” will just alert her to the possibility that being female might be an impediment to something besides peeing standing up. But I realize that another reason I don’t pick up books like this is because I really, really want to believe that we don’t need them anymore, that “women’s history” has finally been integrated into just plain “history.” My experience with the astronaut books showed me that this just isn’t the case yet.
This morning while my daughter listened to an audiobook and my son played dress-up in the playroom (taking a break to argue with one another over the last brioche), I read Almost Astronauts.
Wow. This is a story I’d never, ever heard before. Jerrie Cobb and Jane Hart (a mother of eight, in addition to being an accomplished pilot) testified before Congress in favor of women being allowed the same opportunities to go into space as men, and I’d never even heard their names. Nor had I heard of the other eleven women who passed a grueling battery of tests, made huge personal sacrifices, and faced ridicule and discrimination at every step only to be told that, regardless of their performance, they would not be allowed into space simply because of their sex.
This book is engaging and includes wonderful photographs of the “Mercury 13” as well as the women who came after them, including Sally Ride and Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a space shuttle. I felt inspired by Jerrie Cobb and the story of her successes, encouraged by what promised to be a happy ending to the Mercury 13 women’s quest to join the space program, then discouraged to the point of tears when their hopes were dashed. The book ends on a somewhat ambivalent note: mixed with the celebration of the doors that these women opened for other women in the decades to come is a sense of indignation that, despite all of their work and sacrifice, they were not able to go into space themselves.
This book is a little advanced for my seven-year-old. The reading level isn’t too difficult, but the concepts are a probably little too involved for her. I’m not even sure if she has a clear idea of what NASA or Congress are, much less the Women Airforce Service Pilots. But it was a quick read, and it would be easy enough to excerpt it for her and give her background explanations as necessary, then read more as she becomes more interested. This is one we’ll be looking at again, that’s for sure.