Thursday, April 7, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned From The Thirteen

This week, on April 8, we celebrate the 122nd anniversary of the birth of pioneer aviator Blanche Stuart Scott.

In 1910, at age 21, Blanche became the first woman in the United States to fly an airplane. Later she was the first professional woman pilot, performing stunts at airshows. She made the first woman’s long distance flight. She was the first female test pilot and the first American woman to ride in a jet.

The lady knew her way around the sky.

She also knew about discrimination. Her first flying instructor, a man, at first refused to teach her beause she was a woman. When she insisted, he rigged her plane to keep her from taking off. (She figured out the problem and flew anyway.) She would have been right at home with the women I've been reading about in Tanya Lee Stone's wonderful Almost Astronauts: Thirteen Women Who Dared to Dream.

In direct, pull-no-punches prose, Stone relates the story of thirteen women who dared to dream of becoming astonauts. In the early 1960's, twenty years before NASA accepted women into its astronaut program, they became the "Mercury Thirteen." They were thirteen women, all acomplished pilots, who underwent the same rigorous physical, psychological, and piloting tests as the seven male Mercury astronauts. They knew full well, as Blanche did, what they were up against. They knew that to be taken half as seriously as the men, they had to be twice as good. They passed every test, jumped every hurdle but one--the blind sexism of nearly everyone around them. Their unyielding determination and courage shine in Stone's telling.

So does the arrogance of discrimination. Again and again, Stone offers up examples of the condescension the thirteen suffered. From the patronizing nicknames the thirteen were given ("Fly Gals," "Astronettes") to the smug, smirky attitudes of reporters ("A pretty girl like you must have thought about marriage....") Stone leaves the reader feeling furious at what these tough women had to endure.

Of course, Blanche would have recognized those same attitudes. Maybe that is what makes me most furious: that so little had changed between her time and the thirteens'.

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