The First Woman has completed her mission, and all went well in space and in print.
To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a single headline about "Sally Ride, Girl Astronette." Nor have I seen a story about the spacial primping of our l'il gal Sal.
Twenty years ago, when Valentina Tereshkova went into space, she was followed by an appalling trail of words. The Russians' "smiling cosmonette" and "dimpled space sister" had "her feminine curves hidden in a clumsy space suit" although "the muscle she displays in a bathing suit would be the envy of many males." You get the idea.
Ride, in turn, suffered through some dismal male chauvinism before she went up in the Challenger. Johnny Carson quipped that the launch was being postponed until Sally could find the purse to match her shoes. A Time magazine writer asked if she wept when things went wrong. Assorted others inquired about her reproductive organs, her underwear and her maternity plans.
We were even treated to the information that NASA had installed a candy-striped privacy curtain around the toilet, thus fulfilling every fantasy about equal rights and unisex bathrooms.
By lift-off, however, the media were just about as 1) tamed, 2) repressed, or 3) enlightened as we could have hoped. It was Sally Ride's name that seemed to provide more twists, puns and plays on words for the headline writers than her sex. To wit: "Ride, Sally Ride," "Sally Rides High," and "Sally's Joy Ride."
Still, what we are witnessing is a classic case of First Womanitis, a social disease that comes with prolonged exposure to the spotlight. Sally Ride, First American Woman in Space, took this trip right into history while her male companions are destined for the trivia shows. ("For $10,000 and a complete dinette set, name one of the four astronauts who flew with Sally Ride.")
She is also, willy-nilly, like it or not, joining a large sorority whose ranks include Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to be graduated from an American medical school, in 1849, and Ruth Wilson, the first woman hired as a street cleaner by the Philadelphia Sanitation Department, in 1976. Its membership numbers every woman who ever entered a mine or a boardroom or a courtroom where none had been admitted before.
When all is said and done, Sally Ride is just another First Woman.
Ride is luckier than many of the others in this sorority. People have been rooting for her, rather than against her. But the initiation rites are by now familiar.
As a First Woman, she is watched and called upon to explain her very existence in a way that her co-travelers are not. She is asked opinions on everything "female"-- from fashion to feminism, and everyone offers opinions about her from her fashions to her feminism.
Nearly all of the select have felt this glare of extra-ordinariness, even in their more earthly pursuits. Nearly all of them have sighed, at some moment, as Ride did, "It may be too bad that our society isn't further along and that this is such a big deal."
But most First Women share something else: a special conflict. There is the desire to be accepted as a self-made woman, a person who was and is judged on individual merit. There is the realization that each carries a load of other women's frustrations and hopes.
First Women bear a special responsibility to those who didn't come before them and those who may--or may not--come later. It comes with the title.
Sally Ride's r,esum,e makes Neil Armstrong look like an underachiever. At times she would prefer to be just one of the crew, but she, too, took an extra load into space.
Ride has borne the disappointments of women such as those would-be astronauts of 1961, the dozen whose space futures were canceled out because "the times" were not ripe. She has also taken on the hopes of a generation of young girls in search of heroines. I don't know if there are special ways in which this unique sorority handles pressure and attention, but maybe Ride is typical of the survivors. When it all gets to be too much, she flips "the switch marked 'oblivious.'" Maybe First Women wear that switch like a sorority pin.
In any case, Ride is now initiated. She's learned the rules. Being a full-fledged First Woman means carrying yourself as a second job. Being a First Woman means taking every step for womankind. It's not easy, but the company is fine.