When we consider male-dominated professions that have traditionally excluded women and racial minorities, the list would undeniably include both NASA and the legal profession. In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court, the first time ever a woman achieved that honor and distinction. For women with an interest in science and space exploration, things were even more challenging. Despite the obstacles and blatant prejudices women faced, several pioneers carried on and enhanced and expanded our opportunities. Finally, they’re getting some recognition for it. Two documentaries examine pioneering women from an earlier era who entered these professions at a time when women were not welcome. The end results were mixed and not always happy, but a path was paved for the rest of us. When a glass ceiling is cracked, it creates opportunities for the next generation.
RBG played in theaters this past summer and screened on CNN. It will leave any viewer with a pulse and social conscience exhilarated both by Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and the high quality of documentary films currently being made. To describe Ginsburg as a force of nature is an understatement. Finally, a superhero with whom we can truly identify; one that doesn’t require mystical powers to fight injustice — just a razor sharp intellect and a punishing work ethic. She thrived in law school despite the fact she was caring for a toddler and a husband diagnosed with cancer. She not only attended her classes but took on his academic work as well. This is the functional equivalent of beating back the ocean with a broom, but our Ruth did it. Despite graduating at the top of her class from an Ivy League university, she struggled to find employment with a law firm and thus accepted a position as a professor of law. The American Civil Liberties Union eventually hired her to run their Women’s Rights Project where she began to dismantle the patriarchy one case at a time. Ginsburg understood that if she wanted to advance the cause of gender equality she needed to challenge laws and policies that also discriminated against men. She realized that the courts, stacked with all male judges, would be more receptive to her arguments if she could show them how certain laws harmed men.
This film had the audience cheering and clapping throughout the showing. It’s as thrilling as any superhero film I’ve seen in recent times. Of course, even superheroes have setbacks and as I write this post, Justice Ginsburg has recently undergone lung surgery and treatment for rib fractures sustained during a fall. True to form, she fought back and been declared cancer free. As of this writing, she hopes to be back on the court for the start of the next session in January 2019.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a role model for all women, regardless of one’s political views. She’s done it all: career, marriage, motherhood, and exceptionally well at that. It’s easy to become discouraged with the current political situation in the United States, but at least we can take comfort in the knowledge that we have a protector and great advocate for women’s rights on the court with Justice Ginsburg.
Another documentary film, on Netflix that I highly recommend, alas, does not end so happily given the NASA space program in the early 1960s was still openly discriminatory and exclusively male courtesy of the erroneous belief that only men have the right stuff to take on space exploration. MERCURY 13 recounts the story of thirteen female aviation pioneers who tested for the space program in 1961. It was an independently financed “women in space” study that was run by a NASA advisor. The film documents how these women pilots were put through extensive medical tests showing they had the requisite stamina and physical strength needed for space exploration. In some endurance tests, they outperformed the men. But it was not to be, as NASA—unhappy with the program— inexplicably shut down the Mercury 13 program. It was not until 1983 that the first American woman astronaut, Sally Ride, was sent to space.
This movie was a painful reminder of how prejudice destroys dreams and corrodes the human spirit. During the interviews the pain of these would-be female astronauts over fifty years later is still palpable. They were cheated of their dream and for no other reason than their gender. After watching the movie I was left wondering what breakthrough in science, technology and medicine we have been denied thanks to misogyny. What novels, symphonies, plays, great works of art have we been denied because of prejudice, lack of opportunity and other patriarchal barriers enacted for the express purpose of keeping us out. We are left with a sense of what might have been for the 13 women who earned the right to engage in space exploration with their male counterparts—an injustice against both them and us.
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