book review

“Aside from the Obvious Differences, I Don’t Think There Are Any” (Sally Ride 1982)

Late mornings, leisurely lunches, time to rediscover and enjoy hobbies. These are the best parts of summers as a teacher. All of which are desperately needed in a position that takes literally every shred of your personhood, physically and emotionally for 180 days.

I have a 2 year old, so I’m up up at 5am everyday because the sun is up at 4:30, lunch is a different kind of frenzied fiasco most days, and I’m doing the taxi-mom shuffle back and forth from story time to soccer to birthday parties and playdates. Also, somehow, I’ve spent two weeks horribly sick with first the flu (serious wtf) followed by the worst food poisoning of my life, AFTER escaping the worst flu season of history.

But I digress.

What I HAVE been able to do is READ. Like actually books. Yes, in plural. I’ve read three books so far this summer, and although the days of my youth where I would knock out 200-300 pages in one day are long gone, it’s nice to be able to start and finish something and LEARN along the way. In my adulthood I’ve decided I have no time for frivolity when I read, because there are so many things to learn, so I have a hard time selecting works of fiction. Besides that, real live tends to be far more fascinating. The first book I read this summer was an excellent biography of Louisa May Alcott, which contained far more history on America and the transcendentalist movement than I would have imagined. It was weird, and intriguing and ultimately the story of an iron wrought woman “living in the wrong century” because she wasn’t one to succumb to gender norms of her time.

The latest biography I finished, however, was Lynn Sherr’s Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space.

Very quickly I decided I need to recommend this book to one of my students who is starting her studying in astrophysics this fall, and not long thereafter I feel this is a book all my students need to read, especially my female students.

Our culture praises the barrier-breakers, but rarely praises the person beyond the title. With the recent fame of the film Hidden Figures, I could not help but also have that story running in the background as I read Sally’s.

What do we find with Sally that I feel is so important for our students?

  1. A girl who was raised to follow the things she loved, and encouraged in them regardless of any other thought, concern or bias.
  2. A woman who insisted she was going to be the best at whatever she did. Katherine Johnson echoed this same mentality in her commencement speech last year.
  3. A woman who lived by reality, facts, and hard work. Not a battlecry.
  4. A teacher so passionate about what she did, she was able to convey not only her passion, but her standards of excellence to all of her students.
  5. A woman who felt strongly convicted to civic duty utilizing all of her strengths for the betterment of our nation, but without needing to have a seat in the bureaucracy.

Over the last quarter century so much time, energy and money has been spent trying to “stop up the leaky pipeline” and “close the gap” and “insprire girls” etc etc etc blah blah blah, and, don’t misinterpret me here—I am very much in the club to be a part of the movement.

However.

I also feel strongly that far too many of these initiatives are pushed in the wrong direction. There’s no need to “inspire” girls, and a pink lego set is still gender-normative (and super-restrictive), and if girls are solely being promoted in STEM areas without being truly supportive we run into problems of (1) not really encouraging the growth of future engineers and (2) shunning the boys.

In my personal experience, my absolute best mentors (male and female) were the ones who demanded excellence. period. How you demand that excellence and pull it out of a student and nurture it is going to look a little different for each student, particularly if it’s a male vs female, but it’s not a “thing” the thing is excellence.

Sally double majored in Physics and English, and found that the classes she had to work the hardest at were her physics classes. She wasn’t a straight A student for four years. I can’t even begin to talk about the number of students who decide they “can’t” do physics because an “A” doesn’t come easy to them or they think “physics isn’t my thing” because they have to work at it, but they don’t have to work as hard in any other area. Grit is the defining factor that makes the difference between the movers and the shakers and the folks who settle for mediocrity and less than they are worth.

So many of Sally’s encounters carried many of the same challenges and frustrations we can still find in academia and the workplace today. When greeted by her adviser in college he said, “Well! A physics girl major! I’ve been waiting to see what you’d look like–I haven’t seen one in years!” while this may seem like a kind sentiment, there’s nothing obviously negative, it also is a confirmation of the “weirdness” of being a female physics major. Another professor said, “what are these girls doing here? You are taking jobs away from men!” When I was in college and founded the Society for Women in Physics we made a conscious decision to “flood” quantum physics. On the first day of class, there four of us sat in a row, in our “This is what a Physicist” tee shirts and the professor said “wow, why are there so many girls here”

I loved reading about when Sally  secretly had a meeting arranged with Svetlana Savitskaya, the second woman in space while in Budapest. The Americans were under strict orders not to entertain the Russians, but Sally couldn’t help the connection she shared with Svetlana. Reading about their lively encounter reminded me of when I finally realized the importance of having a network of women in a male-dominated field. Up until that point in college I had a “so what” mentality regarding my love for physics. I think most of us do. We just love it and we don’t really care about being a minority, rather, we just want to be excellent. At the same time, there is so much value in being able to share experiences in a similar manner that can only be done in the circle of sisterhood. It doesn’t define us, nor does it inhibit us, but it is incredibly validating.

At the end of the biography, Sherr details Sally’s 27 year relationship with her partner, Tam. Sally didn’t “come out” until it was in her obituary in 2012, and as Sherr reports, her biggest critics were those in the LGBT community themselves complaining that she should have been advocating. There is no need for any woman’s relationship to define her. A woman is not defined by the man, or woman, with whom who she is most intimate. And a person’s spouse is certainly not their defining factor in their career and achievements. Had Sally lived her story 30 years later I doubt she would have made a big deal of her relationship even in a climate where it is far more acceptable than it was in the 80’s and 90’s. Sally did not discuss her private life or her emotions with anyone, even those closest to her. What was important to her as far as the public eye was concern4ed was how she could advance her mission, whether it be Mission to Earth or encouraging girls in STEM.

To my students: In whatever you do, be the best you can be. If it’s not your thing, at least you’ll know how far you can go before you quit.

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