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Girls Can Be Astronauts, Too

Trying to combat cultural mores

With the final launch of the space shuttle Discovery last week, I got to thinking yet again about a troubling incident that took place when Muffin and Squeaker were only a few months old.

To celebrate the birth of the twin girls, my co-workers had given us two NASA astronaut jumpsuits sized for babies. It made sense, given my interest in science and the space program. The timing worked out so that the girls were just the right size to wear the jumpsuits for the Jewish holiday of Purim. They were the perfect costumes.

Until then, though, the girls were of course still too small for the jumpsuits. Rather than put them away in a closet, we hung them on a doorframe in the dining room. I liked being able to see the jumpsuits every day in anticipation of when they would finally fit the girls. Friends who visited liked the jumpsuits too, and thought them a most appropriate gift.

Shortly after the girls were born, Nomi and I decided to increase our life insurance, which required a medical evaluation. Our insurance company sent over a registered nurse to draw blood and take our vital signs. She was a nice woman, an older Russian immigrant who had done this many times, and like other visitors to our home, she was delighted to meet Muffin and Squeaker.

As she was settling in, she saw the two jumpsuits and looked puzzled. She asked us if either of our kids were boys. No, we reminded her, both girls.

Then why, she asked, did we have boys’ costumes for them?

I looked at her incredulously. “Girls can be astronauts, too!” I said, perhaps a little too loudly. This nurse was Russian; didn’t she know that the first two women in space were Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya? She’d been living in America for many years; hadn’t she heard of Sally Ride, Kathryn Sullivan, Christa McAuliffe, Kathryn Thornton, Eileen Collins, Mae Jemison, Ellen Ochoa, Judith Resnik or Shannon Lucid?

Apparently not.

It may sound strange, but I was incensed. With one question, this nurse—a professional herself—was dismissing completely the idea that my girls could be astronauts. She did apologize for her comment, but it had already started to gnaw away at me.

It worries me still. Even in our modern American culture, in which women have greater opportunities than they have had throughout most of history, there’s a residual institutional sexism. The White House just issued a report on Women in America showing that although more women are going to college today than men, women are still earning only 75 percent of what men earn. Right now, my daughters haven’t been exposed to the sexism of the world outside their door. But I know that eventually they will come up against the wrong-headed attitude that there are some things they just can’t do simply because they are girls.

Nomi and I try to combat this attitude by making sure that the girls know that they’ll be able to do anything they want. Even at their young age, I don’t just call them “cute” and “adorable.” I’ve also told them that they’re strong and powerful, and smart and intelligent. I’ve even sung to them praises of their mathematical ability. Having been a science and mathematics teacher, I know how easy it is for some girls to internalize the cultural assumptions that girls aren’t good at science and math. My hope is that if we inoculate them against sexism, when the day comes that they are first exposed to the attitude that girls aren’t good at math, they’ll be puzzled rather than discouraged.

My mother was one of a handful of women to graduate from Columbia Law School in 1962. She used to tell me of the sexism she and her classmates dealt with every day. Many of her classmates couldn’t get jobs after they graduated, because patriarchal law firms dismissed the idea that they could be serious lawyers, assuming they would stop working the moment they got married and had children. Fortunately, Mom found part-time work at a friend’s law firm and managed to balance career and children pretty well. By the time she died, she was a judge, and two women had served on the Supreme Court.

I’d like to think that my girls will grow up in a world where they feel just as good as boys about their abilities and achievements. A world where no one assumes that an astronaut jumpsuit is for boys only.

I’m saddened to say that I think we still have a long way to go.

This week’s column is written by Michael A. Burstein.

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