Shortly after my wife and I married, over twenty years ago, while living in Scotland we needed cheap entertainment. Growing up one of my chores had been washing the dishes. I continued this calling all through college, working in the dishroom to pay my way through. My wife was pleased with this trait and offered to read to me while I scrubbed away. This was our cheap entertainment, but now, after more than twenty years of the practice, we have read over 100 books together. Last night the book we finished was Martha Ackmann’s The Mercury 13. Most Americans do not realize that during the space race, thirteen women received non-official tests to qualify as astronauts, many of the tests more extreme than those undertaken by the Mercury 7 crew. Because of social prejudices of the 1950s and ‘60s, the women were never given the opportunity to actually achieve space flight.
Apart from the moving account of how these women strove for the stars, this account also chronicles a social prejudice that remains today. Ackmann reveals that during the ‘50s and ‘60s, scientists and physicians had never really taken an interest in women’s physiology. They were, in this McCarthyian era, considered to be an inferior version of males, the dominant social gender. Although the Mercury 13 were accomplished pilots – some with more flight hours than the chosen astronauts – many political and military decision-makers feared that social fabric would fray should women prove as adept as men. It wasn’t until 1983 that an American woman was allowed to enter space.
Here in the 21st century, many religions throughout the world still staunchly hold to the myth of female inferiority. In a monotheistic worldview where non-gendered deities need not apply, one sex will always be somehow less god-like than the other. In a world where men still pay women less, they are reminded daily that God is a white man and that the mythology declares man was created first. Religion is as often used to repress as it is to liberate. The women who sacrificed careers without personal reward to demonstrate that space belongs not only to men deserve our gratitude. And even that old white man, sitting up there beyond the dome that surrounds our flat earth, must be smiling.