I recall a Barbie game from my childhood called “We Girls Can Do Anything” that encouraged girls to envision the career of their dreams. The game came in a box featuring pictures of a doctor, a singer, a journalist, and an astronaut, among others.
The idea was to encourage young girls (like me) to picture ourselves attaining professional success in any field we chose. But of course this only helped so much: After all, Barbie was a make-believe character with make-believe success. It was nice to pretend, and important to imagine, but it would be sad if that’s how I learned to dream big. The good news is my childhood was also filled with real-life examples of women blazing new trails and proving, without Barbie’s frills, that we girls really can do anything.
Sally Ride, who died yesterday at age 61, was one of those examples. She was the first American woman in space, and it was important for a generation of women following her to see her included in the photograph of the Challenger STS-7 crew.
Importantly, Ride wasn’t selected to join the Challenger crew for appearances or political correctness. She had a Ph.D. in physics and a distinguished career before going into space. She was not a publicity stunt. She deserved to fly with the guys.
Ride’s legacy is not simply that she was the first American woman in space. After her trip on the STS-7, the U.S. sent dozens of other women into space in the 80’s, 90’s, and 2000’s. Today, Ride’s legacy is the millions of women who work in physics and aeronautics around the world. She devoted much of her post-space-travel career to educational programs encouraging girls with an interest in science to pursue their dreams.
Oddly, I remember some frustration as a girl that, by the time I grew up, there would be no “female firsts” left for me! But of course, this was childish — mostly selfish — thinking. Today women in the United States have little left to prove, and that’s a huge relief for women in my generation. It’s common knowledge that girls can do anything.
Ultimately, success for women shouldn’t be measured by how many women enter professions in science, engineering, or space travel. We don’t have to be the “first female” anything. We don’t have to think about the traditional division of certain industries as male- or female-dominated. We can just do whatever it is that brings us the most happiness. Thank you Sally Ride, for your part in creating this reality.
— Hadley Heath is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.