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What Sally Ride and Amelia Earhart Taught Us

This week reminded us of two pioneering women in aviation. The nation mourned the death of Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. At the same time, many of us celebrated the 115th birthday of Amelia Earhart.

This week reminded us of two pioneering women in aviation. The nation mourned the death of Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. At the same time, many of us celebrated the 115th birthday of Amelia Earhart.

Both Ride and Earhart made it easier for women to advance in formerly men-only fields. Unfortunately, not enough girls and women today are following in their footsteps.

Aviation was dangerous in its first quarter century and, some said, no place for women. Until the 1930s, no woman was allowed to compete in major air races. Instead, separate categories were created so that the more than 70 American women with pilot’s licenses could build their skills and test their knowledge. When Earhart and 19 other women participated in the first cross-country race officially open to their gender, humorist Will Rogers termed it the “Powder Puff Derby,” making it clear that, even when they risked their lives just like the men, it wasn’t quite as brave.

Earhart was fearless. She was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, as a passenger, in 1928. But she wasn’t the first to try—three women who preceded her that same year died in the attempt. Over the next few years, she broke records of speed, altitude and mileage. In 1935, she flew solo from Hawaii to California. She disappeared in 1937 making a flight around the world.

Sally Ride became the first American woman to crew a NASA space mission with the Challenger Space Shuttle in 1983. She didn’t have to break down the same kinds of barriers Earhart faced: a few years earlier, NASA made the decision to break down the gender barrier and asked women to apply. Ride, with a doctorate in physics, was superbly qualified and accepted to the program in 1978 along with eight other women.

Today, few students are pursuing the advanced physics degrees that landed Sally on her career path. In 2006, only 13 percent of physics professors were women.

And its not just physics. Not enough American students are pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Part of our shortfall results from our inability to attract girls and women to these fields. Today, women make up less than 15 percent of engineers in the United States and fill fewer than 24 percent of STEM jobs. 

After leaving NASA, Ride settled in San Diego where she directed the California Space Institute and started Sally Ride Science to create science programs for elementary and middle school students. Her mission then was to make science fun for students, particularly girls.

We need to follow in Ride’s footsteps and help more girls see themselves in STEM careers.  Students need mentors, roles models and guidance if we are to keep the trails blazed by pioneers like Ride and Earhart open.

Williamson is associate editor with Teaching Tolerance.

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