TWENTY YEARS AGO WEDNESDAY, at 7:33 a.m. on a clear Florida morning, a 32-year-old physicist with four degrees and a ready smile rode into history books with an impressive achievement: She became the first American woman in space.
Fanfare accompanied the liftoff from Cape Canaveral as Sally Ride and four other astronauts aboard the Challenger hurtled into space. Among the celebrities cheering for Dr. Ride were two leaders of the women's movement, Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda. Other onlookers sported T-shirts bearing the upbeat message, "Ride, Sally Ride."
President Reagan hailed her flight as "another example of the great strides women have made in our country." And Lt. Gen. James Abrahamson, a NASA administrator, called the mission "a milestone as far as ladies are concerned." The next milestone, he predicted, would come "when ladies go into space and nobody notices; they just take it for granted."
Ah, ladies in space. How quaint it all sounded in 1983, as if Ride were performing her weightless duties in high heels, stockings, and lipstick.
Now the milestone the general hoped for has become a reality. Since Ride's achievement, 30 other "ladies" have flown on space missions as NASA astronauts. Women's presence has become so common, in fact, that most people no longer single them out.
In the 1970s and '80s, as barriers to employment and promotion slowly fell, newspaper headlines trumpeted other "first-woman" achievements as members of the "second sex" rose to new heights in business and politics: first woman mayor, first woman CEO, first woman governor, first woman vice presidential candidate. The list goes on.
Today young women take those achievements for granted. This month, headlines are also buzzing with the news that it is boys who now rank as the "second sex" in some schools. In what is being called a "gender takeover," girls are leading the way in academics, extracurricular activities, and student government. Boys are lagging behind.
Except in science and math. In those subjects, which propelled Ride and other women into careers as astronauts, girls start showing less interest when they reach middle school. Ride speculates that being involved in science, or being the best student in math class, might not be "cool" for girls. Peer pressure and old stereotypes take their toll.
She is doing her part to change that. This summer she is launching the Sally Ride Science Camp at Stanford University, her alma mater. The six-day sessions for girls in Grades 6, 7, and 8 will focus on astronomy, bioengineering, and structural engineering. Her endeavor is similar to the girls-only "Tech Trek" math and science camps run by the American Association of University Women.
When Ride made her flight two decades ago, she downplayed her pioneering role. "I think it's maybe too bad our society isn't further along and this is such a big deal," she said. Even today, despite the strides women have made, their progress remains slower than Ride had hoped for. Women now account for only about 9 percent of engineers and 20 percent of scientists, she told the Associated Press last month.
In science and math, in particular, girls need more women to emulate. Women often appear as lawyers and doctors in TV dramas and sitcoms. But as physicists and engineers? Only rarely. Scriptwriters, take note.
This Saturday, June 21, Ride will be inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame at the Kennedy Space Center. It's another reminder that a trailblazer's influence lives on long after the celebratory headlines have faded. Ride's induction also sends a quiet message to girls everywhere: Math and science can be very "cool" indeed.