Here at Paleofuture we’ve looked at quite a few books that told children of the 1950s and 60s about the wondrous world of space travel in store for them. But I can honestly say that I’ve never noticed one that included girls in this fantastic, space-faring future.
Exploring Space, First Men to the Moon, Boytopia, The Complete Book of Space Travel; none of these depictions of future astronauts bothered to include women. A Trip Through Space was written by Catharine E. Barry, an associate curator at the Hayden Planetarium, but there isn’t much information about her online. Any biographical information about Ms. Barry from readers is greatly appreciated.
Now, I know that pointing out gender inequalities of the 1950s isn’t a particularly novel observation and I only own about half a dozen children’s books from the 1950s and 60s that envision future space travel. So it’s difficult for me to definitively say how common depictions of female astronauts were during this period without more extensive research. With that said, I suspect that the girl in A Trip Through Space is a rare depiction indeed.
I’m fascinated by what kind of stories we tell our children and how that shapes our society. The stories we hear as kids no doubt greatly influence our perspective on what’s possible for the future, both globally and personally. Sally Ride became the first American woman in space* in 1983 — the year I was born, in fact. What stories did Sally Ride hear growing up that set her on a path pursuing science? Growing up, how did she see herself fitting into the space program? As a 27 year old man who didn’t grow up during the Space Age it’s sometimes hard for me to gain personal perspective on things like this.
I emailed Virginia Postrel, author of The Future and Its Enemies, columnist at Bloomberg and editor of the website Deep Glamour so that I might better understand the gender politics of the time. When I moved to Los Angeles I had dinner with Virginia, her husband and Paul Boutin at Cafe 50s, where a copy of the 1959 kid’s book You Will Go to the Moon hangs on the wall. Over dinner Virginia talked about how much she loved that book when she was a little girl. Virginia’s email to me appears below.
When I was in kindergarten (roughly 1965), we had a time every day where we could look at books. My favorite books were You Will Go to the Moon (1959) and a book on the planets. I did read You Will Go to the Moon nearly every day, and I never noticed that the character in the book is a boy or that the text says, “You will be a space man.” I only noticed that decades later when the book turned up on the wall of Cafe 50s and I later acquired a used copy. As a child I never explicitly aspired to be an astronaut. It was more that I assumed that in the future people would go into space, perhaps on business trips or as tourists. I never got to the details. I don’t know that more women being represented would have had much effect on me, because I’ve never had much of a problem identifying with male role models, but it might have made a difference for other girls. Later, in the early 1970s, when I was 12 or 13 I watched Star Trek, which, of course, had plenty of female characters. The recurring ones were a switchboard operator, a nurse, and a secretary, but there were nonrecurring scientists, diplomats, historians, etc.
And it goes without saying that your comments about this time period — educated or otherwise — are more than welcome.
*The first woman in space was Russian Valentina Tereshkova in 1963.
This post originally appeared at Paleofuture.com.