On a post honoring the late Sally Ride and the Mercury 13 — women who went through training like the original Mercury 7 astronauts, but never got to fly — Athena Andreadis made a provocative comment:
I’m one of the few who believe that women’s rights and successful space exploration (as well as maintenance of our planet) are inextricably linked.
She doesn’t think human society will thrive no matter what technological advances we make “as long as women are not treated as fully human.”
I think she’s on to something, but it certainly stands conventional wisdom on its head. In our traditional stories, exploration was carried out by men who wanted to leave civilization (read: women) behind. The idea that off-planet exploration might require both sexes in equal relationships flies in the face of all those macho ideals.
But that’s just because we’re not civilized yet.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my frustration with people who announce that we’re not going to be able to go beyond the Solar System for millenniums and probably won’t ever meet aliens, either. But it has occurred to me that it might be best if we don’t “boldly go where no [one] has gone before” before we reach a high level of civilization.
In fact, while I thought Adam Frank was dead wrong when he said humans weren’t going to be able to get out of the Solar System — I have more faith in scientific discovery than he, an astrophysicist, does — I did see a bright spot in his observation that we would be forced to fix our problems on Earth instead of running off:
No escape from our own destructive tendencies by spreading out among the stars like seedpods in the wind. For as many epochs in the future as there are epochs of human history in the past, we may simply have to make do, get by with what we have and, in the end, learn to get along.
A big part of that fix involves getting rid of the artificial lines we’ve drawn between men and women. For starters, we’ve got to get rid of that pernicious nonsense that women are responsible for civilizing men and the equally silly idea that women’s civilizing suffocates men and makes them need to light out for the territory.
In the first place, I don’t want to spend my life civilizing men.
In the second place, I want to explore, too.
And in the third place — and probably most important — men are perfectly capable of civilizing themselves. This nonsense that men can’t control themselves and behave responsibly is patriarchal poppycock.
That brings me to another connection between science and gender equity. In a February article on Alternet, Sara Robinson said the 20th Century would be remembered for three significant advances:
- The integrated circuit, leading to the Internet,
- The Moon landing, and
- “the mass availability of nearly 100% effective contraception.”
Robinson’s thesis is that before contraception “anatomy really was destiny.” But with access to good birth control, women began to have real choices in their lives. She goes on to say:
That one fact, that one technological shift, is now rocking the foundations of every culture on the planet — and will keep rocking it for a very long time to come.
Robinson also explains that the current vicious backlash against not just abortion, but contraception, is fueled by those who are frightened by this shift. (Robinson says men, but clearly there are some women who don’t like it, either.) It’s a reasonable argument, especially when you consider that a lot of human beings are frightened by change of any kind.
Unlike Andreadis, Robinson isn’t directly tying our future progress to gender equity. But understanding — and embracing — the radical change brought in human culture by reproductive freedom is an essential step toward becoming truly civilized.
And much as I’d like to meet aliens, or even walk on some planet a thousand light years away, human history suggests that it might be best if we don’t do either of those things until we reach a much higher stage of development than we’ve found so far.
I believe we’ll get there despite the real challenges we face — not just the people who want to drag us back to a mythical simpler time, but the looming and unaddressed problem of climate change — but then, I’m an optimist by nature.
And even I don’t think it’s going to be easy. Hell, I’d light out for the territory myself, if there was any territory left to light out for.