he Americans might have been the first to send a man to the moon, but they had sent a woman into space six years prior. Modern voices have claimed that they won the “space race for gender equality,” much to the chagrin of some right-wing media outlets. Even former conservative congresswoman (and ardent anticommunist) Clare Boothe Luce was impressed, remarking that it was the Soviet Union’s message of gender equality that allowed them to be the first to send a woman into orbit.
When that first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, returned from space, people clamored to see her in Red Square. She was a sensation, garnering praise from Soviet leaders. During a speech in Red Square after Tereshkova’s return from space, Premier Nikita Khrushchev proudly boasted her achievements as a symbol of communist success. “Look what she has shown to America’s astronauts. She has shown them who is who!” And before Tereshkova’s historical flight, other Soviet leaders felt the same way. After all, the director of Soviet cosmonaut training had written in his diary that the Soviets “(couldn’t) allow the first woman in space to be American.”
For the USSR, sending a woman into space was just another way to gain ground in the space race. For the United States, the advances Soviet cosmonauts made for gender equality were largely dismissed as propaganda stunts. A 1983 Christian Science Monitor article written soon after the first American woman made it to space remarked that the USSR’s first female spaceflight was the work of propagandists trying to tout “the equality of Soviet women under socialism.”
Further investigation into the early Soviet women’s space program props up the propaganda theory. An article in Smithsonian Magazine notes that before she made it into space, Valentina Tereshkova beat out another female candidate, professional skydiver Tatyana Morozycheva, because she was a better proponent of Soviet values. Tereshkova’s image was often cited as the reason she was chosen for the first female space flight above other more academically qualified candidates. Once the Soviet women’s space program had selected five female cosmonauts from the files of 58 initial candidates, similar criteria applied. Historian Anton Pervushin identified Valentina Ponomareva, a well-educated woman pursuing a career in math, as the best candidate for the first female space flight. The Kremlin didn’t agree. Sergei Korolov, the lead Soviet rocket engineer, told Ponomareva, that a working-class woman would be a better model of Soviet values. Specialists had chosen Yuri Gagarin for man’s first space flight; politicians, however, chose Tereshkova for woman’s first space voyage. Premier Khrushchev believed that her occupation as a factory worker allowed her to represent the “ideal Soviet Woman.”
But some found other reasons to disapprove of women like Tatyana Morozycheva and Valentina Ponomareva heading into space. Some accounts note that Morozycheva was dismissed from candidacy for the space program not because she wasn’t a good communist, but rather because she got married and became pregnant before she knew she had been selected for health screening. Other accounts note that her pregnancy was the reason for her rejection. And Yuri Gagarin opposed Ponomareva’s candidacy before she was accepted into the program. His reasoning? “We cannot put the life of a mother at risk by sending her to space.” Other sexist sentiments were later launched against Tereshkova following her famous flight. Male members of the Soviet space program blamed her gender, and according to Christian Science Monitor, spread “disparaging rumors” about the way she had acted in space. The Soviets’ lead rocket engineer, Sergei Korolov, probably summed up the feelings of the Soviet space program upon Tereshkova’s earthly arrival in one disparaging sentence: “No more bitches in space!” The other five female members of the Soviet Union’s early space program never made it into orbit.
Perhaps it’s this hypocrisy that led American commentators to praise their country’s first female space flight, even though it took place 20 years later. “In America today, a woman can finally earn her way into space, Christian Science Monitor boasted after the launch of Sally Ride’s 1983 flight.
A lesser-known American space effort tells a different story. In the early 1960s, the United States did have an early astronaut training program for women, known as the First Last Astronaut Trainees (FLATs). Not technically part of NASA, the FLATs were tested under Dr. Randy Lovelace, who had written the testing standards for NASA’s Mercury mission. In early 1961, it seemed like the United States was seriously considering sending one of the FLATs into space. By September of that year, testing had been abruptly cancelled. When two of the FLATs argued for their program in a 1962 Congressional hearing, aviator Jane Hart was described as “Mrs. Phillip Hart, wife of Senator Phillip A. Hart…and also a famed pilot, as well as an outstanding wife and mother.” Other comments made during the hearing went further. John Glenn, the first American to be sent into orbit, argued against women having the same opportunities that he had had, stating, “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.”
Fifty years ago, the United States put a man on the moon and won the space race. But contrary to one infamous New York Times headline, neither world power won the “space race for gender equality.” In both the United States and the USSR, women were kept from space because of their roles as wives and mothers. John Glenn and Yuri Gangarin both made comments about keeping women away from space because of their roles as wives and mothers. And both world powers ended their early female space programs amidst a wash of sexist, negative comments about women in space.
In April 2019, NASA had to restaff a spacewalk that was supposed to be conducted by two female astronauts. The reason? It didn’t have two spacesuits that were the correct size for women. In 2019, women are still racing to make it into space. It’s up to us to make sure that they can do more than just reach for the stars.