Sally Ride showed Generation X girls that the sky’s the limit.
We could do anything boys could do and sometimes better. If we wanted to go into space, our gender couldn’t — and wouldn’t — stop us. If we studied hard enough and trained our brains, the glass ceiling could be shattered.
Amid all she taught women, one barrier the first American woman in space chose not to break was sexuality. When Ride died on Monday at age 61 from pancreatic cancer, it emerged that Ride had a partner. As one friend on Facebook wrote, in jest, “That lady astronaut was gay.”
Yes, Sally Ride, a theoretical astrophysicist, American hero and feminist icon, was a lesbian.
She had a partner for 27 years. According to some news reports, Ride didn’t hide her relationship from family and friends. Perhaps, but most of us only learned that tidbit of Ride trivia from reading her obituary.
Ride lived a quiet life, a throwback to another time when someone’s personal life wasn’t splashed all over television or Facebook.
Ride’s partner was Tam O’Shaughnessy, a professor emerita of school psychology at San Diego State University. She and Ride wrote several books together, and O’Shaughnessy also served as chief operating officer and executive vice president of Ride’s company, Sally Ride Science, where children receive encouragement to learn about engineering, math, science and technology.
When she became the first woman in space, she was married to astronaut Steve Hawley. They divorced in 1987.
In a statement on Monday, Hawley said: “Sally was a very private person who found herself a very public persona. It was a role in which she was never fully comfortable. I was privileged to be a part of her life and be in a position to support her as she became the first American woman to fly in space.”
The media scrutiny made her path to space even more challenging. Some reporters in the 1980s asked her if she would wear a bra in space. Others asked if she planned on having children. Ride hated that she was asked such questions while her male counterparts weren’t.
Ride may have tolerated ridiculous inquiries during the quaint ’80s, but the decade also shielded the shy astronaut. She wasn’t politicized, nor did she trend on social media. If she was married, we didn’t obsess over it like we would now in a celebrity-crazed world. We didn’t become oversaturated with tales of Sally Ride, but we did take a lesson from her.
In death, Ride already has become politicized. Progressive and gay blogs are lamenting that O’Shaughnessy will not receive Ride’s federal benefits because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and they’re blaming Republicans.
Ride obviously didn’t want to be a gay icon. If she had, she easily could have sat down with Oprah or Ellen and told the world about her sexuality, her private life and her love for O’Shaughnessy, whom she had known since age 12.
Instead, Ride lived in a world where we all should live, a place where we celebrate someone for her accomplishments and not her sexual orientation.
Suzi Parker, author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt,” is a regular contributor to The Washington Post’s She the People blog, women writing on politics and culture.