During a press conference preceding her first journey into space, Sally Ride was famously asked, "Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?" She replied levelly, "How come nobody ever asks Rick those questions?" highlighting the very entrenched gender stereotypes that she was pushing through to become the first American woman in space.
I remember learning about Sally Ride in elementary school. I remember looking at her picture in my textbook in awe: "The first American woman in space." She inspired me because she was a strong, smart woman who had pursued a career in the sciences and had gone on to become a trailblazer in the space program.
After her tenure at NASA, Ride went on to work for Stanford, to write five books on space for children, and to start her own private company, Sally Ride Science, to encourage young people, particularly young women, to pursue STEM sciences.
"While she never enjoyed being a celebrity, she recognized that it gave her the opportunity to encourage children, particularly young girls, to reach their full potential," said ex-husband astronaut Steve Hawley in a statement released by NASA. Perhaps it was this reticence to be in the public eye that led Ride to publically reveal her 27-year-long relationship with Dr. Tam O'Shaughnessy only posthumously, with a reference to her surviving partner in her obituary.
In a time where celebrity "coming out" has become a rather common, if still socially fraught, occurrence, Sally Ride didn't appear on the cover of People, nor did she preside over a gay rights parade (things Andrew Sullivan has the nerve to fault her for). But she did live fully and impressively, inspiring generations of girls and boys, all while devoted to O'Shaughnessy. And because our country doesn't yet fully recognize their commitment, Dr. O'Shaughnessy will be the first widow of an astronaut in the space program who will not receive widow's benefits. This is outrageous, and I hope that NASA will find a way to honor their commitment in the same way that they honor heterosexual commitments.
Our culture and society has changed at an incredibly rapid pace over the last 50 years, though perhaps not quickly enough for those who are denied their full rights. Ride pushed forward despite her perceived deficit, her gender, and was abundantly successful in a male-dominated field. She is a role model for all women. Now we also know that Sally Ride lived the end of her life in a committed same-sex relationship.
I believe that this, too, will someday become so accepted in our society that it will no longer appear as noteworthy as it does today. Maybe Ride said it best herself, in response to the intense public scrutiny of her being a female astronaut, "It may be too bad that our society isn't further along and that this is such a big deal." That's the saddest thing about Ride's passing: she never lived to see the day when her accomplishments weren't always discussed in the same breath as her gender.