Sally Ride may have been the first American woman in space, but everyone can find inspiration from her story, not just young girls.
Earlier this week, the first woman to go to space, Sally Ride, died from pancreatic cancer. I thought a lot about her death as I wandered around the Global Village at the AIDS 2012. As I read stories about AIDS activists from all over the world, I realize that even though I don’t have AIDS, I benefited from all their work and their stories. I remembered Ryan White and how, as a little child, I learned that you need to stand up and fight. It made me think that his life wasn’t about liberating people living with AIDS but liberating everyone to become more loving, caring, strong people.
I was still thinking about Sally when I began to see people sum up her life in 140 characters or less.
Astronut Buzz Aldrin tweeted: “@TheRealBuz So sorry to hear of the loss of my friend and fellow astronaut Sally Ride. You will always be an inspiration for women and space.”
President Barack Obama also tweeted: “@BarackObama She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars.”
All of a sudden, I became infuriated that her life’s accomplishments were being limited to inspiring girls. While inspiring girls is an incredibly important task in a society rampant with institutionalized sexism and gender based violence, I think our leaders miss the mark when they put up boundaries on someones life’s work.
A friend of mine reminded me that it’s important to have people to look up to that “look like me.” Yes, it’s important for a little girl to see women in leadership and breaking barriers. It’s critical for children of color to see President Obama in the highest elected office in the country. But, it’s foolish to think their leadership and pioneering stop at their constituency.
When little boys watched Sally Ride head into space, they learned that a woman can go to space. They learned that a woman could excel at science. As those little boys grew up into men, they were less likely to see being a woman as a hindrance to being in a science lab or being their boss. Just like little white children will learn from President Obama that people of color belong in leadership everywhere.
In a perfect world, it wouldn’t be up to women to break down doors. The men with the power would realize their errors and begin to share and give back what isn’t rightfully theirs. But, our world isn’t perfect. People with power hold onto to their power with a vice grip.
So, it becomes up to the intrepid woman to venture into a new space and take her place. When she wins, she changes the world forever.
After she gets in the door, it’s open for the women coming after her.
In the case of Sally Ride, our imagination for what it meant to be an “astronaut” was forever changed. Eventually, generations of little boys and girls won’t even be able to comprehend that women weren’t in space once. At that point, both the little girls and little boys are fully liberated from the binds of sexism.
When our intrepid leaders die, can we make a commitment not to limit their impact. Can we agree that Sally Ride showed little girls to excel and little boys that girls rock at a science, too? And, that together, we are building a more just world?
Melissa Byrne likes gardening, posting too much on Facebook, and experimenting with quinoa. She has been a long-time organizer and first noticed gender discrimination as a first grader when the boys had twice as much playground area as the girls. Right now, she is working on ending the jobs crisis and loves all things about Social Security.