Echidne has an interesting post about the history of the moon shot, “Reaching for the Moon,” in which she calls out the erasure of women from history even by purported “feminist” allies. The specific occasion for her post was an article by Paul Campos, in which he boasted whiggishly, “One measure of how much has changed in the last 40 years is that the very idea of a woman astronaut in the 1960s would have seemed outlandish to most Americans (that the Russians had a female cosmonaut was widely interpreted as a preposterous publicity stunt).”
She responds that on the one hand, women’s participation was fixed within rigid limits, but that they were in fact part of the Apollo project all along: “the absence of women astronauts in the program has a much more concrete reason: They were excluded from it. Books have been written about that: Margaret A. Weitekamp’s Right Stuff, Wrong Sexand Stephanie Nolen’s Promised The Moon. And there were women involved with the project itself as described by Robyn C. Friend in The Women of Apollo.”
Echidne then muses, “I’m not sure why women’s history appears to evaporate the way it does.” Well, here’s a theory: it evaporates because the culture has a stake in erasing women from history and denying that their participation or leadership ever mattered. Even trained women’s historians like me find ourselves making “discoveries” that were themselves re-discovered already sometime in the past two or three hundred years, but which were again forgotten and buried, because the historiography of the twentieth century didn’t take seriously the work by nineteenth-century women historians, and wrote them all off as antiquarians or amateur hobbyists.
And, too, even present-day feminist scholars have a stake in believing the soothing (and usually illusory) promise embedded in the whig narrative that Campos trotted out: “unlike the bad old days, things are so much better for women now!” It’s just too depressing to think that we aren’t in fact better off than previous generations, and we can’t stand to think that there’s no point whatsoever in our work. So we too collaborate in the erasure of women’s history, even as we claim to be building a permanent edifice. But, modernity is all about progress, all about the power of human beings to shape their environment limitlessly. In other words, modernity is a guy thing: no girls allowed, and even if a few of them sneak into the clubhouse, we’ll make sure their activities go down the memory hole.
“I was convinced that some day I was going to be an astronaut.” Engineer and Apollo project team member Ann Dickson.
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