Hearing the news of Sally Ride’s death took me back to 1983 when I was 13 and followed the news of her being the first American woman in space. I was at that point a student at an all-boys school where the curriculum did not really spend much time on women in science or women in history so seeing her achievement shifted my perceptions of what was possible in the world. I also remember people singing “Ride Sally Ride” and thinking how cool it was that people were singing about her the same way people sang about famous sports figures.
With her death, I now look beyond that remembrance and see how others interpret her life and legacy. Certainly almost everyone praises her accomplishments and notes her as a role model. Then, though, there are those like Laura Helmuth for Slate who talk of Ride as coming way too late, pointing out that the Soviets put women in space much earlier (in 1963) and that there were women back in the Mercury program who should have been there first.
There are also those (for example The Daily Beast) who look at her obituary and note that it contains the first public acknowledgment that she was gay, a reference to her partner of 27 years. Then there is the piece by Andrew Sullivan criticizing Ride for not being open about her sexual orientation. He concludes by writing, “But the truth remains: she had a chance to expand people’s horizons and young lesbians’ hope and self-esteem, and she chose not to. She was the absent heroine.” I do not want to wade into the politics of coming out, but I think he does go a bit far especially at this moment. His critique might better serve in later historical reflection.
All these facts taken together make one wonder how Ride will be remembered going forward. She will likely continue to be an inspirational figure especially for women in science and space exploration, but where will the additional analyses fit in?